Thursday, April 29, 2010

Forgotten Music Thursday: Stevie Wonder - Where I'm Coming From (1971)

Where I'm Coming From is the big turning point in Stevie Wonder's career. Released in 1971, shortly before his twenty-first birthday and around the time his original Motown contract expired, it was the first album under Wonder's new deal in which Berry Gordy reluctantly gave the R&B superstar total artistic control of his work. When the record stiffed Gordy, who did not like it, began to have second thoughts about allowing Wonder to go off totally on his own. However, beginning with 1972's Music of My Mind through 1980's Hotter Than July this magnificent musician proved Gordy wrong by becoming one of the most creative, relevant, and popular artists of the 70s.

The nine song album is as diverse as anything Wonder ever recorded even if doesn't quite reach the heights of Innervisions, Talking Book, and one of the greatest albums in the history of pop music, his gigantic, twenty-one song work, Songs In The Key Of Life.

Where I'm Coming From's dark opening track, "Look Around," instantly shows that Wonder no longer intends to be part of the Detroit hit factory. He proves this with lines like "Look around and you'll see ruins of the human history. Look around and you'll see time is only floating in your mind." Obviously, this wasn't your big brother's Motown.

Complete with clavinet "Do Yourself A Favor" is one of Wonder's typical funky tracks that carry a social message. It's not quite as effective as some of the similar and high powered classics he would record later, but it's a good beginning. "Something Out Of The Blue" and "Think Of Me As Your Soldier" are typical Wonder ballads that prove he has always been one of the best writers of love songs of any era and any genre. "If You Really Love Me" went into the top ten on the singles charts.

Side two opens with "I Wanna Talk To You, a conversation between an old white man and a young black man who he sees walking down the street. Never one to be depressed despite his justified social concerns, Wonder tells us to "Take Up A Course In Happiness" with an upbeat arrangement that fits the message. Next is one of Wonder's stunners, the emotional breakup song "Never Dreamed You'd Leave In Summer" later covered by Joan Baez and Three Dog Night. The album closes with a look into the future where the keyboard player envisions a better life for America's children. He sings that he can't wait to see the "Sunshine In Their Eyes."

All of the songs were composed with Syreeta Wright, Wonder's wife at the time.

The young genius had almost a decade of recording under his belt when he released this album and, while a decent greatest hits package is all that is needed prior to this record, it's the first of his essential works.

The album cover featured a mobile you could make out of Wonder's last name. All you had to do was punch out the letters and hang them on a string, something I never did, so my LP is still in pristine condition.

The CD of Where I'm Coming From has long been out of print. New copies are only available at collector's prices through stores such as Amazon where you can also easily purchase a less expensive, used copy. You can also buy it as a download.

Wonder played "Never Dreamed In Summer" at Michael Jackson's memorial last summer. You can listen to the original version here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

This Blog Is Now Old Enough To Attend Kindergarten

Today's post is probably the most personal one ever to appear on Bloggerhythms because I've followed one rule about blogging that I discovered on the web many years ago. It is to inject your personality into your posts without getting too personal.

Bloggerhythms turns five years old this week and it's still online because I discovered I enjoy writing even more than I thought I would. I'm happy this is a passion that I can actively participate in because I embarrassed myself every single time I tried my hand at my first love, music, and my second one, baseball. (The Mendoza line was a huge pipe dream for me even when I was in little league).

This blog started out strictly as a CD review site but it's focus has changed slightly over the last couple of years because I discovered that readers are often more interested in some of the other music related stuff I've written about than they are in the reviews. I've also noticed that there appears to be greater interest and response to articles about artists and music from the baby boom era than more current fare. (Maybe that just means I have an older audience).

I know that the more a blogger posts the more readers he or she gets and I'm frequently shocked how prolific many of my fellow bloggers are. The last two years I've struggled to post at least once a week and because I've only come close to achieving that goal I proved I can miss the Mendoza line even in adulthood. I give a tip of my hat to those of you who manage to regularly post new stuff two or three times a week. How do you find the time to do it?

Finally, I apologize to those of you who I may have confused with multiple facelifts of Bloggerhythms in recent months. I had grown weary of Blogger's boring, amateurish looking templates and I even considered migrating over to Wordpress, However, with Blogger's recent upgrade I'm happy to at last come up with a look that I can appreciate. Now if they can just get rid of the stupid navbar.

I thank all of you who have come along for the ride these past few years. I don't know if there will be a tenth anniversary but I certainly hope so.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

John Oates - 1000 Miles Of Life (2008)

John Oates, one half of Hall and Oates, the biggest selling duo in pop music history, issued a very interesting solo CD in 2008 called 1000 Miles Of Life. It's not overloaded with the catchy hooks that are a trademark of his famous band but it's still a good enough outing to make you wonder why their long and stellar career was so dominated by Daryl Hall.

Many fans of the superstar, 80s version of Hall and Oates may not realize that they began life as a folk-pop duo. The music they made in the early 70s was more singer-songwriter oriented even though blue-eyed soul was still a component of their work. Their best album from this period, Abandoned Luncheonette, (1972) was the perfect synthesis of folk and R & B. The highlight of the record was the single "She's Gone." It would take several more years for both the song and the album to become a hit after the success of "Sara Smile" but today they are considered classics.

1000 Miles of Life is Oates second solo CD (the first was Phunk Shui in 2002) and it has far more in common with Abandoned Luncheonette than anything he and Hall recorded during their glory years. There are lots of acoustic guitars, strings, some dobro courtesy of Jerry Douglas, and banjo from Bela Fleck. Bonnie and Bekka Bramlett sing back up and The Blind Boys of Alabama harmonize superbly on "Sending Me Angels." John Popper and Steve Cropper also help out and the late T Bone Wolk plays bass.

There is some funkiness for sure. The title cut, "Ghost Town," and "Carved In Stone" all have a soul inflected groove. There is a folky remake of the title track from Change Of Season, Hall & Oates' last album before their 1990 hiatus. The songs are deeply personal and reflect the rocker's personal life at the time. Oates is philosophical but never depressing. His singing proves he should take the lead vocals for H & O far more often and his songwriting is the equal of Hall's. All in all, it's a rewarding release from the underrated half of the much underrated duo.

Here is an interview Oates did for the CD in March 2008 before he even recorded it in Nashville.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Vince Guaraldi - Vince Guaraldi's Greatest Hits (1980)

The late Vince Guaraldi is known to most of us only as the pianist on the soundtracks to the Peanuts TV specials and especially as the genius behind the most famous jazz Christmas album in history, A Charlie Brown Christmas. That is a real shame for a man who died too young of a heart attack at age 47 just after completing work on another Peanuts TV show earlier that day.

Fantasy Records released this fourteen song disc, Vince Guaraldi's Greatest Hits, on vinyl in 1980 and on CD in 1989. It is far from being a complete retrospective because it only contains music Guaraldi recorded for Fantasy but it still serves as a very nice overview of this intriguing jazz man's work.

Guaraldi started making records in the mid-50s as a sideman for Cal Tjader. He also sat in with Woody Herman. Later he played with percussionist Mongo Santamaria and Dave Brubeck's bassist, Eugene Wright.

In 1959 Guaraldi set out on his own. It would be 1963 before he hit paydirt when "Cast Your Fate To The Wind" became a hit single and earned him a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. Soon after that he worked with Brazilian Bola Sete, an acoustic jazz guitarist who made a name for himself during the early 60s when his country influenced a lot of jazz in America and elsewhere. Greatest Hits features Sete on "Ginza," "Star Song," and Henry Mancini's "Days Of Wine and Roses." The most interesting collaboration between the duo is an instrumental version of Lennon-McCartney's "I'm a Loser" featuring Guaraldi and Sete as the only two musicians.

Of course, the the disc also includes "Oh Good Grief," the world famous "Linus and Lucy," and "Christmas Time Is Here," an instrumental that can be played anytime of the year.

Guaraldi was always able to sustain a groove without getting frantic, improvise without losing site of the melody, and both compose and interpret other people's music with ease.

Even if you've never heard anything else by Guaraldi except for his work from the Charlie Brown specials you've already been schooled in how tasteful jazz piano can be.  Adding Vince Guaraldi's Greatest Hits to your collection is surely a safe bet.

Visit Guaraldi's official website.

Listen to "Cast Your Fate To The Wind."

Monday, April 05, 2010

Loren Francis - I've Been Down Before (2010)

Guitarist and singer-songwriter Loren Francis is a Maine native currently residing in Boston. Francis has buskered down the entire East coast of the United States, on Greek islands, in the catacombs of Jerusalem, on the beaches of the Virgin Islands, and all over Central America. Even though he has written tons of songs in those locales I've Been Down Before is his first CD release.

Francis describes the music on his four song EP as urban Americana. While his arrangements may fall on the softer side of rock they still offer plenty of energy and passion. The very radio friendly title song opens with just a solo piano and voice, gradually building in intensity while morphing into a full blown rock anthem. "If It Was Up To Me" and "Lot Left To Learn" are nearly as effective.  During the disc's best moments his vocals remind the listener of an American Ray Davies.

The New Englander writes very personal songs and he takes complete advantage of his natural gift for strong, emotional wordplay. He proves this with very curious but thoughtful lines like, "You can't make love and have it too," from "It's Over," the disc's opening track.

These four songs make me want to hear the hundreds of others Francis has written. You can listen to all of the tracks from the EP and more on his MySpace page.