Monday, July 27, 2015

Stevie Wonder: Fulfillingness' First Finale (1974)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Following the release of the masterful Innervisions, Stevie Wonder earned the right to rest on his laurels; to begin with, that album was brilliant enough to linger permanently as the definitive statement of a fully developed artist. But then came the day, just after its release, when Wonder sat dozing in the passenger seat of a car whizzing down I-85 when the driver smashed into a flatbed truck, impact focused squarely on Stevland Morris' forehead. Wonder was in a coma, had to be medicated, had to gradually gain back his faculties. The pop world's adoration of him was vocally affirmed as though it hadn't been already. He showed up to his first gig afterward pointing proudly at his scar and sending the enormous crowd into utter jubilation.

Did he slum it, then? Some have regarded Fulfillingness' First Finale as an indulgent, monochromatic affair. It's dominated by ballads and subtleties and explodes into action really only twice, both times with adult emotions -- sexual urge and political rage -- hard to imagine emanating from the 12 year-old genius or even as of Talking Book. Some also see it as a stopgap, sandwiched between two masterpieces, and of course it earns poignance from being part of a larger story and a longer run of superlative works. Yet the album's comparatively off-the-cuff nature and comfortably sparse production managed to seal it, for all its contemporary popularity, as a product ahead of its time. And as with Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, it bears noting that its supposed uncommercial nature is only by a matter of degrees -- it is Stevie Wonder, it is accessible and deeply moving and very plainly glorious.

If there's less momentum, if the ballads are subtler and more troubled than usual, it's merely because Fulfillingness is an unblinking representation of Wonder's mind in the months after his by all accounts life-changing accident. Wonder has never before exhibited so much frank sorrow or cynicism; the genius grows up. "Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away" argues with but also struggles over its title's implication; hook-filled as ever but mournful, it comes about its moving climax bit by bit, as though a catharsis like that of the prior record's religious anthem "Higher Ground" can now only come with hard work, uncompromised faith and pleading.

Wonder's musical preoccupations evolve less on Fulfillingness than on any of his past three albums or the next one; this is much more an exploration of established methods, an attempt as though in real time to determine if all of the artist's gifts remain, and then how far he can go with his own expertise at harnessing our bodies, hearts carefully, quietly (hell, "Bird of Beauty" is really just a seductive, surrendered variant on "Too High"). The only other mainstream soul record of the '70s that achieves so much under such dark, careful, unflashy circumstances is Marvin Gaye's Here, My Dear. Yet Wonder never presents anything that resembles a dirge; the closest he comes is the classical piano-inspired, mournful and frightened "They Won't Go When I Go," as stark and hopeless a creation as Big Star's "Holocaust," but even it can't stay wallowed in the mire for its duration -- bursting finally and redeemed.

The record offers no "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," no "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," certainly no "For Once in My Life," yet it immediately envelops us in its uniquely reluctant spirit and mood. In short, Wonder is troubled, and not troubled in the conscious but swaggering manner of Talking Book and Innervisions at their darkest. Even the latter's saddest moment, "All Is Fair in Love," was suffused with sheepish wit. Wonder's accident-related revelation doesn't lead him all that far from his prior concerns or personality. Nixon terrifies him just like racism toremented him on "Living for the City"; the result is the outrageously funky, ferocious clavinet-driven "You Haven't Done Nothin'," boasting the great man's best-ever lyric and the propulsive vocal contributions of the Jackson Five, who visited Wonder in the North Carolina hospital where he lay nearly dying and now fight alongside him.

Indeed, one is reminded of Frank Capra, who once alleged that after the release of It Happened One Night he was struck by a godly revelation of sorts -- that his duty was to let the people who saw his films know that he loved them. Capra's work thereafter was deeply populist and humane... but so was nearly everything he had already made up to that point. Perhaps his focus was simply tightened. It's by this line of reasoning that FFF opens softly, assuredly, warm-heartedly with "Smile Please" -- a jazzy and casual saunter of catchy optimism only mildly tempered by its chorus' slight desperation. It's a giving, caring setting of the stage for what's to follow, yet it also withholds -- what it builds to isn't quite a peak, only a vague allowance of joy that's more or less brought to fruition by the even more complex "Heaven Is Ten Zillion Light Years Away."

Herein lies the major artistic evolution of this LP, its most famous payoff to come two years later. Probably very few people would make an argument that Innervisions is an inferior record to this one; many of us find them nearly equal, but there's little question that the prior album is the signature achievement and very possibly Wonder's finest moment on record. But each song of Innervisions was a world unto itself; they may have complemented one another beautifully, but they did not necessitate one another. In a shattered, newly awake world and outlook like Wonder's circa 1974, it suddenly must have seemed obvious that the tempered sweetness of "Smile Please" necessitated the worshipful paean and questioning of "Heaven...", that therefore the tentative, virginal, slide guitar-ridden "Too Shy to Say" required the pure sex of "Boogie On Reggae Woman," that both needed the romantic dread and superstition of "Creepin'." Without exception, all of the fine songs here are stronger when heard together in proper sequence; the album furthers, enlivens itself and its sometimes morose, lost sensibility. It's partly because no sentiment here is simple, childlike, innocent.

"Boogie On Reggae Woman" is accomplishment enough to require some digression, and a speedy comparison to the romances of Talking Book or My Cherie Amour casts into stark light just how much Wonder's albums of the '60s and '70s are a narrative of boyhood fading into physical and emotional maturity -- more eloquently and musically than the output of any other teen idol. Masculine sexual identity in rock & roll has historically been turgid and superficial, a result both of gender roles and of the bounds of the form. But even if Stevie Wonder is a modern American hero on a level with few, he as a musical entity is hardly traditional. Somehow, his hot-sex song is different -- and hotter -- not only because of the stark vulnerability in his voice but also the passive androgyny of the lyric. The song cannot be denied musically, driving along with cosmic force in one of the rawest grooves of Wonder's career. As engaging as it is, it's still the composition and -- especially -- the vocal performance that makes the song so potent, even today in a pop music world swimming in innuendo. This is the real thing, with genuine feeling, genuine primal lust.

Like Brian Wilson's legendary take on the far less (but not entirely a-) sexual "Don't Worry Baby," Stevie's vocal here makes its mark with orgasmic mystery, with his teasing groans and the bashful secrecy of "I like to do it to you 'till you holler for more," the submissive thrill of "I like to make love to you 'till you make me scream." The song is an admission of sex not just in one of the three pop interpretive traditions -- as pornographic bliss or an expression of love or a political metaphor, all of which have some truth -- but as a function of the flesh and a feeling that marks true humanity. The line that grips every time is the one that reveals the most about Wonder and the beauty of sexual relationships in general -- "I like to reggae with you, but you dance too fast for me." There's no song better suited than this for such delightful interpersonal revelation.

Yet again, however, that split second of dancing bliss requires counterpoint, and therefore side one ends with the gorgeous but meacing "Creepin'"; his voice never better or truer, Wonder wraps it around a blackened tale of obsession and lust, no ordinary love song, more evocative and conflicted than even Gaye's work of the period. It's a strange, counterintuitively calming track that belies its secret heart on a record that very often isn't what it seems to be. Songs that begin as whispers routinely evolve into full-blown gospel revival.

If "Creepin'" alone doesn't make the case, if the melody and ache of something like "It Ain't No Use" can't render this as vital and grand as any of the outstanding achievements in Wonder's catalog, if its thematic sophistication does nothing for you, maybe it's wise to stick to something simple: Fulfillingness' First Finale features the artist's best, most nuanced singing ever, full of character, charm, sensuality like at no point in his career before this and honestly not often thereafter. Beyond just his own singing, it's the versatile use of the human voice he displays in his productions: the harmonic lushness, openness, the intimacy of the way he is himself recorded.

This might really be a finale of sorts; it's the definitive moment of Stevie Wonder as the artist he set out to become at the end of the '60s when he acquired control of his output. Conceptually it's virtually perfect, almost seemingly effortless, and consistently rewarding and revealing. But when he lets the facade break just a bit and starts to suggest a bit of joy and passion looking ahead on "Please Don't Go," it's the first evidence of the earth-shaking universal classic he would unearth just a few years hence. Fulfillingness can't help but sit in the shadow of two great records it sits next to on the shelf of every music collector with an ounce of taste in this country and many others, but it's a great record in its own right specifically because of what it slowly begins to imply: more than a decade after "Fingertips," the reality of growing up and becoming an individual is beginning to require the full force of Wonder's creativity and intellect. He'd grown up before our eyes, and now we would really see in full the man he had become.


[A small portion of this essay incorporates material from a previously published piece about "Boogie On Reggae Woman," posted in 2004.]

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Beach Boys: Surfin' U.S.A. (1963)


They weren't much of a surf group. The best genuine surf music is instrumental and has little to do with the Beach Boys' entirely separate if not incompatible skill set; rock instrumentals were for a time an explosive subgenre that achieved occasional transcendence with miracles like Dick Dale's tricky, evocative guitar heroics. Such music just as frequently emanated from minor bands or studio musicians who'd unroll one crucial, vibrant single, maybe two, then disappear. Surf music didn't have much commercial or cultural presence for long, and as the subculture itself grew it was apparent that the music of genuine surfers was neither "Pipeline" nor "Surfin' Safari" but harder-edged R&B. So the irony is the Hollywood guys who in all but one case had never surfed in their lives have this gorgeous album cover on which it is proclaimed that they are "the no. 1 surfing group in the country."

The Beach Boys were undoubtedly "bigger" by the time this album rode up the charts than any other popularly identified progenitors of surf music. But not better, at least on the evidence of the whopping five instrumentals that fill out the tracklist on their second album. Three of them are covers, one dull but enthusiastic ("Misirlou"), one competent but uninspired (Bill Doggett's "Honky Tonk"), one that drains all the life out of the original, indicating the harsh limits of youthful enthusiasm (Dick Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'," in its original version probably the best surf 45). Of the originals, "Surf Jam" is scrappy and fast but forgettable and "Stoked" is exactly the same, only it contains the band obnoxiously repeating the title.

Then the Beach Boys, it seems, are no more a surfing group than Loudon Wainwright is a calypso singer. Their true innovations lie someplace else entirely, exemplified by the title track here, an exhilarating and real moment hampered only by the lifting of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen." (The song was supposed to be credited to Berry as cowriter but Capitol botched it on the single.) The song has little to do with the conventions of surf music, everything to do with pure rock & roll and the sheer aural rush of its strong, forceful sound and escapist lyric. Like Berry, the Beach Boys lyrically are literate and wordy, instrumentally raw and therefore infinitely expressive. In mono, at least, I could put "Surfin' U.S.A." on a par with any rock & roll recording; it's utterly explosive and has a power over any listener that remains potent to this day, maybe because there's not a human alive who can't relate to the opening line -- "If everybody had an ocean..." -- including those with no interest in water or surfing. It's one of the greatest statements of purpose in all rock music.

The b-side signals that all isn't right. The popular but oddly listless car song "Shut Down," built from one of Roger Christian's oddly romanticized, jargon-filled car poems, feels contrived compared to its coupling and both sides of the first Capitol single. Insincere formulas invariably wear thin quickly, after all, which may explain, on the album, the prevalence of ballads above all else, surely something that seems to stand in a kind of contradiction to the teenage utopia symbolically depicted on the front of the package.

"Lana" is simplistic to the point that it barely exists, but it plays to the band's strengths because it seems that Brian, taking one of his first leads, actually cares about what's being sung. Indeed, he'd stumbled at last on the ideal subject, as had so many before him. Just as, with "409" and "Shut Down," he'd discovered cars to be twice as universal as surfing, girls had tenfold or more on both of them. The two other knockout tracks here, "Lonely Sea" and "Farmer's Daughter," both have Brian slipping into lovelorn balladeer mode. Written mostly by Gary Usher, "Lonely Sea" is an early classic, astonishingly enough lifted from the band's Murry Wilson-produced demo tape for Capitol, the same one that brought us "Surfin' Safari" and "409." However, the beloved "Farmer's Daughter," famously covered by Fleetwood Mac, remains the loveliest song here, its depth of emotion -- surely as wrought and considered as on the mournful "Lonely Sea" -- is suggested rather than explicitly stated, thus drawing a direct line to the next album and the Beach Boys' work thereafter. The minimalist lyrics carry a kind of hopeful sadness that takes its time to hit you, and then suddenly "Surfin' U.S.A." seems like a song not about beach party fun but about how everybody wants to be where they can't, by the ocean or next to the farmer's daughter.

Thus, it's not hard to link these tastefully restrained but still exuberant love songs to the bright "Noble Surfer," full of delicious bass vocals from Mike Love, concerned with admiration of a hero from a distance and equipped with an atypically clever lyric and an unexpected celeste solo. The ideology is enough to weigh you down, but that's why we have the Frankie Valli-like "Finders Keepers," because beach party fun is still damned important too. Either of these eclipse "Shut Down," though that song's celebrated breeziness make it easy enough to forgive. The five solid originals plus both sides of the single comprise half of a solid, though not brilliant, sophomore album, but the record's pacing is so fouled up by the constant instrumental interjections that it's best heard piecemeal and, despite higher peaks, is a far less consistent record than Surfin' Safari. Modern non-obsessives are likely to lose patience digging for the gems, a problem that anticipates similar issues with Shut Down, Vol. 2 a year later.

Consumers turned Surfin' U.S.A. into the first rock & roll album to sell in mass quantities in the era of the LP as a vehicle primarily intended for classical, opera, jazz, and bloated film soundtracks. It success would be parlayed into much greater artistic control for the Beach Boys -- namely, the ability to record wherever they wanted and to credit one of their own, Brian Wilson, as producer. (Brian had all but officially produced this album but, as was then customary, A&R man Nik Venet received the sleeve recognition.) Credit the band's bizarre appeal to nearly everyone, the universal spontaneity that seemed so simple then and was slightly less simple for the Beatles and became an impossibility by the time of the Stones and the Who. In some terms, it actually is a step backwards for the group, but a closer look reveals that it's scarcely related in any fashion to the first album, a different beast entirely. Dodge the stereo mix and approach it with historical distance, plus a promise for a few lost jewels. And for what it's worth: in his autobiography, David Marks reports a fan running up to him in the late '90s with a copy of this LP bearing the three Wilson brothers and Mike Love's signatures, asking Marks to complete the set. That fan: none other than Dick Dale.


[Originally posted elsewhere in 2003. Subsequently fact-checked and revised to align with a larger Beach Boys-related project in 2016.]

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Back to the way it was: February 2015 albums

I've had this written for you-don't-wanna-know-how-long, and kept putting off gathering the album covers from the Net, then this morning I started wondering why I even do that; the links end up being broken eventually anyway, it seems. You don't need album covers to enjoy or be somewhat informed by these writeups, right? Good, good, let's keep moving then.

K. Michelle: Anybody Wanna Buy a Heart? (Atlantic)
"Drake would love me," yeah, probably. Despite a few early moments of sparkling, synth-heavy production, this is schmaltzy, shrill R&B that doesn't harness Michelle's appealingly nuanced, raspy, Mary Wells-like voice the way it potentially could, nor the momentum of the decent single "Love 'Em All." The parts about weed are best.

Kaki King: Junior (Rounder 2010)
I have come increasingly to feel that King is one of the all-time great guitarists, and one of the very few capable of filling out an entertaining album with nothing but her own noodling and improvisations. This is therefore easily the oddest specimen in her catalog by virtue of its being atypically conventional, a weird, breathy Cold War concept album with songs about Russian spies, Pasternak references and musical thematics lifted from various espionage movies of the '60s. There is a gorgeous, classic KK instrumental ("Sloan Shore"), and yet the remainder gleans so little depth from its relatively far-ranging influences and ideas that it ends up blending even more than usual with the "musical wallpaper" notion associated with what was once called Beautiful Music. King is to be applauded for stretching, but her gifts -- and gifts for consistency -- lie elsewhere.

D'Angelo: Black Messiah (RCA) [A+ (originally hr)]
This stunning, sprawling heap of hardened, difficult R&B is intricate, detailed, subtle, addictive, even inscrutable, and absolutely brilliant. (My favorite Marvin Gaye record is Here, My Dear, in case you're wondering which you weren't after that sentence.) Every listen seems to push one further into its paranoid, troubling murk and redemptive sensuality. It's worthy of James Brown, George Clinton or Prince at peak, and its racial and social consciousness -- its feeling of an important act that is happening right now -- gives you some whiff of what it might have been like to live and work in the real age of those titans. This is an album of the ominous, chaotic moment, maybe the only one. Not one of its songs is as satisfying as the entire package, but not one of its songs is incomplete or weak; the package simply ebbs, flows, intensifies as a whole. The funk album of the century.

Avey Tare: Down There (Paw Tracks) [c]
The Animal Collective phenomenon already seems silly enough with hindsight to make onetime deriders somewhat more sympathetic to their cause, but my low tolerance for QUIRKY VOCALZZ keeps me from hearing anything in this.

Mark Ronson: Uptown Special (Columbia) [c]
"White Gold," eh? Sounds like a DJ who spins nothing but various volumes of Now! That's What I Call Music.

John Coltrane: Africa/Brass (Impulse! 1961) [A+]
Coltrane's first album on his famously lucrative contract with the then-fledgling Impulse! is, perhaps more than any of the other LPs issued in his lifetime, the palpable sound of sustainable artistic freedom. Its centerpiece is an otherworldly but wonderfully familiar take on "Greensleeves," demonstrating how -- with one of the loveliest melodies ever written at his disposal -- the master was so adept at toying infinitely with simple chords and melodies, working and twisting out into the sublime. But the two originals are propulsive and alight with fire, chaos and beauty -- and beauty perverted -- all at once. This featured Coltrane's largest band and some of the most unusual instrumentation featured on a jazz record of this period, including Garvin Bushell's woodwinds and Bill Barger's splendidly incongruous tuba; the orchestrations by Eric Dolphy, adapted from McCoy Tyner, are dissonant, evocative, wholly immersive. The secret weapon here is drummer Elvin Jones, however, who brings these lofty sounds back to an earthy bliss. The record's still-potent liveliness is astounding.

Jazmine Sullivan: Reality Show (RCA) [r]
Solid, varied R&B record with stern attitude and unique voice. An auspicious return to a still-fraught, intense scene.

J.B. Hutto and His Hawks: Hawk Squat! (Delmark 1968) [r]
Danceable electric blues from South Carolina by way of the Chicago '50s scene is certainly a reflection of the brief mainstream popularity of electric blues, and there's no mistaking its populist appeal. Hutto has a bite of eccentricity, something that keeps him from blending in to the 12-bar wallpaper, and this comeback session is a solid, engaging evening with a rowdy monster.

Viet Cong (Jagjaguwar) [c]
"Alternative" "rock".

Ayub Ogada: En Mana Kuoyo (Real World 1993) [hr]
Stunningly beautiful, instantly appealing folk music from Kenyan singer-songwriter Ogada, whose vocals more than mildly resemble Nick Drake; at the very least, he's second to Alexi Murdoch in the Drake soundalike contest. The vibe is accessible (the record comes from Peter Gabriel's label) and low-key and it's hardly a monument of innovation, rather of the universal appeal of restraint: it's mostly just Ogada's voice and the nyatiti, which offers a lovely combination of the warm and the unique. The mood, occasional injections of variance via layered vocals and woodwinds, and subtle tones of lyrical unrest make it universal. I don't like to be one of the constant advocates of the slicker, quieter, less abrasive side of East Africn music, but good is good.

Sleater-Kinney: No Cities to Love (Sub Pop) [r]
Songs are only here and there but it's fun to hear them play them. Were it anyone else, it might not seem so weighty.

The Decemberists: What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (Capitol) [c]
A band whose work was once so full of wit seems to have slowly shed it piece by piece; the warning sign was probably when so many of the richest, most satisfying and singular songs from the Crane Wife cycle were left off that release. Still, The King Is Dead suggested maturity and a future for Colin Meloy as a Nashville factory songwriter. This new record, though, is a strange leap into the adult contemporary abyss that seems hard to justify as the follow-up to a commercial breakthrough (but then, so did the Avett Brothers' last few albums; so does the work of just about every band that switches to a major label), and my best guess is that a hiatus due to Jenny Conlee's cancer treatments dimmed their focus. Cleverness, however self-conscious it sometimes was, has been replaced with cutesiness and syrup that call to mind Wild Life-era Wings. Meloy reveals how easy it is for even a dynamic, distinctive frontman to become a total nuisance. The Decemberists' audience might skew slightly mid-forties hipster at this point, but they seem to be bidding for office Muzak mostly, a curious fate for several other '00s folk-rockers like Iron & Wine and Band of Horses as well. The moments that stand out only do so in their wrongheadedness; annoying jaunty backing vocals, songs that sound routinely as stupid as barrel-scraping R.E.M. numbers like "Wanderlust" and "Shiny Happy People," and on the cut that provides the album's title, a surprisingly crass sentiment from someone so allegedly sensitive as Meloy. He wrote it in the days after the Sandy Hook massacre; it's about the contrast between the grief being felt by the parents of the dead children then with Meloy's own placid happiness as a father. In other words, it's essentially a humble brag about one's child being alive, undoubtedly well-intentioned but just another sign of how aloof a very popular band can quickly become, and how fast my generation's indie rock as a whole has faded hopelessly out of touch as it ascends to messy middle age.

The Damned: Damned Damned Damned (Stiff 1977) [hr]
Cited frequently as the first-ever UK punk band, a statistic that becomes harder to define and more meaningless with each passing year, the Damned have never had quite the international audience or legendary cachet of the Clash, the Sex Pistols or even Australian counterpart the Saints. But the claim Damned Damned Damned can lay down that's nearly unique in its era is that, beyond its association with any particular movement, it's a truly brazen piece of timeless rock & roll fuck-all, fast and furious in the vein of the Stooges -- whose "1970" is memorably covered herein -- but with ample devilish wit to match. It's an absolute shot of pulp joy that hasn't grown old with time, and its two signature singles "Neat Neat Neat" and "New Rose" (with its glorious opening echo of the Shangri-Las) can still pump up and blow apart a middling evening. But in contrast to Never Mind the Bollocks, the rest of it lives up to its peaks; the cascading, furious "I Fall" might be their very best song, and "So Messed Up" is Ramones-worthy. Taken together it's all so clear and full and complete, when punk was serious in its irreverence, focused and deeply inventive.

Belle & Sebastian: Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance (Matador)
Having conquered seemingly two disparate career paths for the same band, Stuart Murdoch's current endeavor takes them to the dance floor, sort of. And yet, as on Write About Love, he's best when he plays to / remembers his strengths. Aside from the songs that really extrapolate into miniature but extensive dramas, the work here largely seems too cute and lacking in tangible emotion. Much like Stephin Merritt's later work, what we're hearing is the career twilight of someone for whom this has simply become too easy. Murdoch could write most of this with one eye open, his band could play it with both shut, and the stylistic toying is just costume jewelry. We're less bored than he is, but we can tell he's bored and it's tragic.

Al Green: I'm Still in Love with You (Hi 1972) [hr]
This is one hell of a subtle record; having long loved Green's singles I've only just in the last couple of years started to process his albums in order, which has been an excellent experience I wish I'd taken on with more artists (and probably will down the line). Pretending this was a new release, thus ignoring the inescapable fame and power of its several hits, I was initially disappointed that the album seemed dialed back, painstakingly smooth, even soppy at times. But each revisit reveals the tension and power lurking in songs that never make their sensual longings as initially explicit as they finally are. Thinking at first that it was the least of his first three Hi albums, I now would say it's the best. And the "Oh! Pretty Woman" cover is Wilson Pickett-worthy. But of course the singles leap triumphantly over all. Is the best of the bunch the ubiquitous title cut, which revises but amplifies "Let's Stay Together"? The teasing "Look What You Done for Me"? No way. The champion is the strangest, most hardline and brutal of the bunch -- the hard, pleading, possibly mildly sarcastic "Love and Happiness." That the album retains the vibe of its most beloved inclusions without ever growing repetitive or dull is just one of the treasured revelations it's hiding.

Pond: Man It Feels Like Space Again (Caroline)
Annoying Grizzly Bear-lite stuff.