Thursday, January 05, 2006

Hello there

I did warn you that I wouldn't necessarily update this thing every day! But I ain't slacking on you pardner, I know you've come to expect the goods and like any decent retailer I'm here to give it. For example, after ages of waiting, here is my review of the new Stevie Wonder album A Time To Love.

Review of A Time To Love
If Your Love Cannot Be Moved

Stevie starts his album with another powerful message in song about social and relational responsibility. The entirety of the message isn’t that obvious to me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get bits a pieces from the song. Interesting start with the drum beat that sounds like a defiant march or some sort of drudgery through to victory feel in the song.

When I first heard it, I thought, well it’s alright isn’t it? And on this listening of it, I get the same impression. Kim Burrell’s contribution is very good, highlighting for any newcomer just the sort of great talent this girl possesses. She can more than keep up with Stevie and impress her own vocal dexterity. Having heard her before, the best bit is knowing that as well as she does here, she’s not flexing as much as I know she’s capable of, but that’s no bad thing at all.

Apparently Kirk Franklin organises a choir on this track – alright maybe just a few backing singers. In any case, they’re not that impressive. It’s just a vocal opinion, but their ‘move, mo-mo-move’ bit sounds a bit contrived. Ned says – 6/10

Sweetest Somebody I Know

I like this song a lot. Use of keys, strings, drums, etc. Neat song musically and lyrically. Particular props has to go to the use of the acoustic guitar. So far there’s nothing distinctly r’n’b about the album at all and that’s good. Stevie does this song justice vocally and the backing arrangement here does a lot more to give the song the support that a song deserves. His harmonica solo is quality.

Where I’m at is the way the music just travels down to make its point re-emphasising the message Stevie relates to the loved one. As a married man, meself, I can relate with the ways of relating how much the person means to you, and Stevie again relates it brilliantly. The added bit of adding his son’s interruption is a little thing that marks out Stevie in terms of the family feel he brings to his albums. Ned says – 7/10

Moon Blue

On first hearing this song stood out as a great slow chiller of a love song. On further listens it loses the immediacy of that first listen, but maintains a sense of appreciation and admiration at Stevie’s songwriting excellence.

It’s the vocal performance that’s particularly remarkable. There’s a discipline here that almost makes it sound like he’s a jazz singer with distinct control over that vocal. It’s a brilliant vocal performance. Even the bit at the end where he climbs to a top note and chuckles, that’s just excellent to listen to.

Musically this song is fine, it’s the sort of love song to be played in a candlelight dinner where you’re looking to get the mood required to woo your loved one. It also establishes a pattern that’s particularly noticeable on this album and that’s relaying a simple song. The simplicity of this song is in the music, there’s nothing flashy, complex or difficult to grasp and that in this case is a good thing. What Stevie shows a lot is his ability to create soundscapes and atmospheres that engages you in the mood of the song and this is that kind of effort. Ned Says: 7/10

From The Bottom Of My Heart

I loved this song the first time I heard it. From the opening harmonica solo through to the last note. It’s a return to the well of great love songs that Stevie can write. But it’s one thing to write a great song, and another thing completely to relay that song passionately and … lovingly. Stevie’s vocals are spot on here, it just sounds right. The barometer for a good song in my household is if it gets my wife and son singing it, and they were singing it on the second time round! Even my 1 year old daughter shows her appreciation by bobbing up and down when it comes on.

Musical structure of the song is great, use of keyboards and organs is on the button and the drum programming is done well, I don’t feel that it at all inhibits the song, which has been a criticism in the past. The backing vocals are wonderful in just how lush and smooth they sound. The whole of the cake of this song allows me to really appreciate Stevie’s love song. Brilliant. Ned Says: 8/10

Please Don’t Hurt My Baby

Few artists ever create albums where every track is on top form and brilliant. Stevie has come very, very close on two occasions. This song gives the indication that this won’t be one of them. It reminds me in feel of his duet with Paul McCartney ‘Girl I Like What’s You’re Doing’. In my own listening it comes from the school of songs that Stevie writes that are like Maybe Your Baby, relating some of the harsher issues of love. Now it’s not that I don’t like listening to these kind of songs, its just that the feel of these songs leave me at best nonplussed.

As I understood the lyrics more, I was fairly intrigued as to how he managed to get his point across, and so lyrically it’s not bad. The vocal performance is fine. The dialogue between the male and female backing vocals is kinda humorous, but to me rather contrived. Light hearted Stevie fare, really. Just not my cup of tea. Ned Says: 5/10

How Will I Know

Stevie redeems himself with this little jazz effort. I like feeling warm when I hear a song, and this song makes me feel warm all over. The acoustic piano is fantastic. The live bass feel is superb, the drums are softly done and the feel is just brilliantly established.

It’s a good song to put that kind of feel to as well as the dialogue looks at how do we know what true love is like. It’s also clever for Stevie to get a father and daughter to ask the question as it’s still a relevant question whatever the age. Stevie sings well and Aisha also performs admirably well, she has a good warm voice to grace the song and the duet is fine. Ned Says: 7/10

My Love Is On Fire

People have said that Jamiroquai are trying rip off Stevie. In terms of musical feel of a song, this is the nearest you’ll get to an argument to support that. This is one of those throwbacks to the feel of 70’s soul. It is smooth and brilliant. This feel is created by a live sound with the strings, keys particularly, the bass and excellent drums.

Stevie’s vocals again are spot on with this song and the message he gets across is as sultry as he gets. I’m just in awe of the whole song. It shows a maturity and development in Stevie’s songwriting that makes it unfair to try and compare it to early material, it’s great on its own basis. Again the feeling of lush backing vocals makes me love the song all the more.

This is also Stevie at his cleverest musically – I defy anyone to get a band together and get that song down in one or two takes particularly the passage between the repeating of the chorus. Never heard of Hubert Laws before this album, but dude, the man can certainly play some mean flute and it’s just the right instrument for this kind of song.

Tribute as well to the backing vocal arrangement – very smart in splitting the male and female and what that contributes to this very smart song. Very smart song overall, at just the right length, I don’t feel any sense of it going too long and it hits all the right buttons with me. Ned Says: 8/10

Passionate Raindrops

Lush beginning, intimate sounds, evocative lyrics, lightly rendered lead vocal, soft understated backing vocals, tender piano playing, sensuous strings and definite but not intruding beat. This is Stevie at his very best in terms of songwriting. The simplicity in this song is just in terms of structure. There’s so much more to remark about this song – get the strings mimicking raindrops in the chorus; pick out the backing vocals in the fourth verse.

What really sends this song soaring through the roof is the lyric. I think it’s a natural development from Summer Soft, to Send One Your Love to this song. Brilliant use of elemental imagery to convey the intimacy of love-making. I tell you, every time I hear this song I just listen and nod my head in awe at the master at work. No one can rubbish the man after hearing a song like this and it already makes a very impressive claim for a spot in the Top 20 Stevie songs of all time. Ned Says: 8/10

Tell Your Heart I Love You

So how do you follow brilliance? In Songs In The Key Of Life after the mastery of Summer Soft came the relatively mundane Ordinary Pain. In this case Stevie allows history repeat itself with this song. I mean what is he saying lyrically? It’s a bit contrived and rough. All in all this is the worst track on the album.

Having got all that out of the way, I am not placing this as the worst Stevie song of all time, neither is it in the running for that title. It’s not tragically awful or necessarily off-putting. The harmonica input is a notable bonus. Stevie doesn’t pull back vocally, he’s alright. It’s just the rest of the song is a bit mundane. Ned Says: 5/10

True Love

So again to redeem himself, Stevie whips out another jazzy classic. Another brilliant vocal performance here relaying again that personal journey of finding out what that mystical ‘true love’ is. It’s a very disciplined vocal performance and aids the song greatly. Apparently Stevie wants to produce a jazz album at some point down the line, and if it has anything like this track then I am there in heartbeat.

The drumbeat, to me, is rather innovative, not just a simple 2 and 4 beat, but a bit of a bass drum rumble as well. Saxophone part is great here as well. It is a self-contained masterpiece of a track and highlights just how much Stevie has grown musically. I’m not sure if he could have produced this around the mid-70’s, but he has now and I am grateful. Ned Says: 7/10

Shelter In The Rain

I hummed the main melody at a rapid pace and that revealed the simplicity of the song. Melody-wise it’s not that much of a toughie. Apparently Stevie wants to produce a gospel album at some point and this song puts down his marker as having the credentials for it. In fact this is a more than right fit for a list that already includes Free, Heaven Is 10 Zillion Years Away, Have A Talk With God and Higher Ground. Stevie was given this song in response to some personal traumas in his life and I can hear how it ministered to the brother. Lyrically it hits the right buttons and its rendered well by Stevie.

Musically here as well Stevie is on the button. The only snag for me is the use of the backing vocals. I put it down to what I expect from a choir in a song and that’s a sense of power and I don’t really feel it from them on this song. Does this diminish from the song? Definitely not, this is a quality song. Ned Says: 7/10

So What The Fuss

The first single released from the album is an interesting selection. On the recurring theme of simplicity, I’m not sure if Stevie could get more simple. Get a tune going round and stay with that for the duration of the song – no change from verse and chorus and only stretching out in a vamp at the end. Lyrically get four issues and get it to relate to me, you, them and us and then get it into the chorus. No great variation required.

Why Stevie gets away with such basic simple songwriting is personal enthusiasm, solid musicianship and quality input from his other artists. En Vogue do a good job backing the brother on this track. Prince’s guitar part should not be dismissed easily especially as we get into the vamp. At the end of the day Stevie conveys some serious issues in a good I could get away with saying funky fashion. Ned Says: 7/10

Can’t Imagine Love Without You

Sometimes I wonder why Stevie employs lyricists. This song proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the guy can write some cool lyrics. The range of impossibilities that are noted harks back to As with their expressions of how much the brother loves the person in question. He also puts these issues across in a loving, passionate yet soft way. Indeed, vocally he takes great care in allowing us to understand what he’s saying and the song is all the better for it.

It’s not easy being smooth without being cheesy or boring, but Stevie consummately does this without breaking a sweat. Everything about this song is rich in putting the case across, again thanks to a great string arrangement and all round superb musical arrangement. Ned Says: 7/10


I first heard this song at the same time as From The Bottom Of My Heart and it suffered in comparison. Yet after a number of times hearing the track it’s grown on me. Its grown on me a lot. It’s a cool throwback to some of the 60’s tunes in structure. It’s something I’ve said before, but I’m not slow to say it again. Stevie took Tomorrow Robins Sing and made it properly. Lyrically Stevie overstretches himself with how much you can fit into a line – which at times detracts from the message he’s getting across. It’s the first time that it happens on this album, and he tried it often in some of his latest excursions. Thankfully the bottom line of what he’s getting across – It’s Better To Have A Positive Approach To Life – comes across, but it’s advised that he quits this technique. To release it as a single where he’ll have to give live performances of it, or try to lip-synch it seems questionable to me, but that’s just me.

All that aside, this is an infectious hit. Ned Says: 7/10

A Time To Love

As the drum situation and a duet influenced the first track, so Stevie comes full circle with the final track. Just like Conversation Peace Stevie puts the title track last and uses it to summarise what he stands for. I’ve not really heard that much of India Arie, but she does a good job on this track. If her contribution is with the lyrics then she’s done a brilliant job with them – they convey Stevie as well as Stevie ever could.

It’s a strong song throughout and a good summary overall of the quality lyrically, vocally and musically. The only quibble I have is with the use of Paul McCartney. Apparently he’s on bass and acoustic guitar, yet these aren’t prominent instruments on the track until the end and that’s just a throwaway riff that my Uncle Joe could contribute.

Is it too long? Is Stevie a bit too preachy on it? Do we really need to be listening to drums for that long? Well yes, yes and no, but that doesn’t mean that the song isn’t worthy. I kinda can understand, having heard most of the rest of his output why Stevie would use the opportunity to take 10 minutes out of your life to ask that question of when will there be a time to love. It’s justifiable in the context of the whole album. Ned Says: 7/10

Overall Comment

Is this a return to form for Stevie Wonder? Is this his best work since Hotter Than July? I can understand why people ask these questions. Like a weight over his head, Stevie has had to pay the price of genius which is to create genius with everything he does and if he doesn’t woe be tide. I find it incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to assess his work on its own merits not comparing it to his previous work so I won’t bother. What I will say is that are key developments in this album that show to me that he’s broadened his songwriting and production skills to prove that he can be effective and creative in his own way today as he has since the late 1960’s.

In an album of 15 proper full length tracks to only have three tracks hit under 7/10 is a good indication of how good I rate this album. There’s a richness, variety and maturity in the output of this album that leads me to applaud this man. Throughout, Stevie maintains vocal of efforts of high quality that I commend highly. What Stevie is known for as well as vocal excellence are great songs, and thankfully this album has a number of songs that go from good to great. If I wanted to be comparative, I would say that there are tracks on this album that would measure up with anything on Songs In The Key Of Life or Fulfillingness’ First Finale. In Passionate Raindrops Stevie has produced a beauty that in quality terms is right up there with his very best. With My Love Is On Fire he hits heights that he’s scaled routinely in the ‘golden’ era of his 70’s material. From The Bottom Of My Heart is a song that is more than comparable with love songs that he’s produced over the years. The key difference is, however, that these songs could not ‘fit’ these albums. It’s a sign of Stevie’s development that these are great songs that had to come out now, that had to fit this time and this era – they’re an example of him going to another level in songwriting.

Consistency with the theme of the album is another commendable point and there was nothing here that sounded soppy. It’s in no way a perfect album – if he dropped Please Don’t Hurt My Baby and Tell Your Heart I Love You then we would have an album that would contend with Talking Book and Innervisions as the greatest album he’d ever produced, certainly beating Songs In The Key Of Life to that title. As it is I’m left with a very good album – one that was well worth the ten years wait and proves that Stevie Wonder is still one of the greatest musical artists the world has ever produced.

Overall Album Rating – 77%

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