I had my eyes open for this record for some time before picking it out of a bin at Georgetown Records in Seattle, while I was there for Beyonce and Jay Z’s 2014 On The Run tour. Yeah, it was an unforgettable weekend. Anyway, I was looking for this album because, although it’s not Stevie Wonder’s first recording, it was the one that gave start to his unending success.
At the time this was recorded in 1962, the 12 year old genius had been signed by Motown for over a year and had released two studio albums, The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie, and Tribute to Uncle Ray. Neither of these albums really took off, but this live album gives us a taste of both Stevie’s “jazz soul,” and his love and respect for “Uncle Ray”. The energy of this live Chicago show exudes from the recording, making me feel like it’s my own memory of being there… if it weren’t for the knowledge the “little Stevie Wonder” went on to win 14 Grammy awards before I was even born (and then another 11 since 1982)! A quick note from Berry Gordy on the record sleeve says that the title is not “given to Little Stevie Wonder by Motown… for publicity,” just in case you were wondering. 54 years later, and I highly doubt they’ve been accused of misusing the word genius.
Side One begins with the album’s biggest single, “Fingertips,” which gives the listener a pretty good example of Stevie’s charisma and charm, not to mention his proficiency on the bongos and the harmonica. Also, just as a bit of trivia, that’s none other than Marvin Gaye playing drums on this track. And speaking of Gaye, that’s exactly who wrote the next song on this album, “Soul Bongo,” which continues to features Stevie on the bongos. Side A of The 12 Year Old Genius finishes with “La La La La La,” which pretty much sums up the lyrical content of the album so far. On this song we get another dose of young Wonder’s stage presence as he teases the audience, from the drum set this time. Even if this kid wasn’t blind, 12 years old, and about to grow up to be The Stevie Wonder, I would be impressed with the solid and fun first half of an album.
I’ll admit that sometimes this is where I stop listening. Not because Side B is bad at all, but Stevie turns his attention and energy to his vocals in order to give us a bit of a tribute to his mentor and idol, Ray Charles. The album begins with one of four songs that are all lyrically beyond his maturity and comprehension. Two out of three songs that were made popular by Ray Charles were also written by him, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough different versions of “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” even if it is weird hearing a boy sing about a lady bringing him coffee every morning. Still, “Drown in My Own Tears,” is even more awkward. There is a certain charm in a child singing about heartbreak, but I also find it a little creepy. That being said, for a 12 year old, he can sing.
I mean, the kid sounds just like a young Stevie Wonder.
Considering that I call this blog “On Records,” I’ve decided to take that rather literally, and attempt to write about albums that I have in my own vinyl collection. I will also use this as an opportunity/excuse to take ridiculous pictures of my bonding experience with their cardboard sleeves, like the one below. Of course, in one short month we will take a break to participate in some very fun March Madness brackets, but in the meantime we can take a look at some records that I love, and some that I am a little embarrassed by.
Foreigner’s appropriately titled fourth album is neither of these. This album is one of a handful that I inherited from my brothers when they traded their vinyl for shiny, digitally formatted, compact discs. So, because it is one of my first, it holds some nostalgic value for me, but not in the way that, say, MJ’s Thriller does. 4 is not a record I spin often, which made it perfect for this new project of listening through my collection in order of album title, regardless of artist or genre (which are the two ways I currently have my records organized).
I probably kept this album because I liked the two upbeat singles, “Jukebox Hero” and “Urgent,” and with this listen they are still the two moments I was most excited for. The album kicks off with Nightlife, and I begin to question whether I really want to spend so much time listening to all this White Dude Rock n’ Roll. That is what this is, especially in 1981. Album Oriented Rock is what the genre was (think Alternative of the 90’s, or Indie of the early 00’s), and until Michael Jackson collaborated with Eddie Van Halen for “Beat It,” radio stations wouldn’t play music made by any non-white musicians. I know this isn’t Lou Gramm or Mick Jones’ fault, but generally Foreigner isn’t representative of my go-to music. That being said, the first side of the record has been really growing on me. The tasteful use of synth from pre-solo-career Thomas Dolby highlights Foreigner’s catchy licks and riffs, and their well-used, emotionally manipulative chord progressions. Plus, they had Mutt Lange producing, which is like 1981’s version of Max Martin – he knew exactly how to clean something up and make it sell like an Apple product.
Anyway, back to the beginning. “Nightlife” is at least a good reminder of the era we’re in, and I don’t have to wait long for my favourite (that I share with most 80’s stadium crowds), “Juke Box Hero”. This song is everything that was hopeful about 80’s rock and roll. “Juke Box Hero” is the American Dream. As the song builds in energy, rhythm, and volume, we hear of an everykid, inspired (by a show he can’t even get into!) to purchase a secondhand guitar, who grows up to be a self-taught and self-made rockstar, or “juke box hero.” This is probably one of the most underrated rock anthems of the 80’s, or maybe ever. What I wouldn’t give to go back and see them perform this in the early 80’s with the massive, inflatable wurlitzer that they would blow up at the end of every concert.
But as I said, the rest of this side is pretty solid as well. “Break It Up”, although so dramatic, is exactly the kind of song I would love to lip sync to. “Waiting For A Girl Like You,” is the big ballad of the album that in part sets the tone of the decade, giving permission to other AOR bands to get in touch with their sensitive, romantic sides. “Luanne” is kind of a mix, and mostly I think it’s such an interesting choice to include here. I mean, there are a lot of feminine names that have two syllables, and I don’t know that Luanne was ever that popular a name. Who knows if this song would be more popular today if it was instead titled, “Ashley,” or “Colleen”?
Unfortunately, the best thing about the second side/half of this album is the hit single, “Urgent”. This song alone keeps me flipping the record over, if only because of Junior Walker’s guest appearance. I tried so hard to find a performance of this song with Jr., but it seems that like the video below (around 2:38), they mostly had another guy sax-sync to Walker’s brilliant solo.
I get rather bored with the two Jones’ penned, ego-centric songs, “I’m Gonna Win,” and trope-filled, “Woman in Black,” although the latter one has some great guitar riffs that remind me of Huey Lewis and the News.
The last two songs on the album return to the kind of pop I enjoy from Foreigner. Both “Girl on the Moon,” and “Don’t Let Go,” are fun, and I nod my head to them, but I can’t say that either of them are going to be the reason I decide to give this album a listen. I am not entirely sure whether this is the only Foreigner record I have, but I am quite certain that it’s the last one chronologically that’s any good. I would even venture to say that although some of their other albums have some more solid singles, 4 is arguably their best to listen to in album context.
I recently had the opportunity to reorganize my record collection while relocating my vinyl from pull-out bins under my entertainment unit to a tall black shelf. My records are now book-style, displayed spine-out, and I’ve organized them by genre and era, before going alphabetical to artist. My Erykah Badu albums are with my soul/r&b-since-1990 albums, but Mama’s Gun rarely ends up in its spot with the others. This particular album usually ends up on the “recently played” shelf, and barely ever makes it back to its rightful home before hitting the turntable again. I love it. There is almost never a time when I am not in the mood to listen to this record. In fact, I would not be surprised if her four-sided red-pressed album from 2000 holds the title of my most listened-to album on vinyl.
But, I was motivated to write this blog after recently listening to Mama’s Gun over headphones while stuck on the subway for over an hour. I was supposed to meet my wife at a coffee shop near our house. She was happily drinking tea and being productive, while I was sitting on a motionless subway with no internet or cell coverage. Have I mentioned that this Vancouverite hates the transit in Toronto?
Anyway, I found a silver lining in spending some quality time with one of my favourite albums. Each individual track has a link to a youtube upload, but I highly recommend listening to the whole thing at Grooveshark link, so you don’t miss the sweet, sweet transitions.
With the intimacy of headphones, I heard things I had never noticed before. From the moment I hit play, “Penitentiary Philosophy” opens with a groove that crescendos into a mournful wail, of the question “Why?”. And right away, we know that we are dealing with a very human artist, far more vulnerable, honest, and relatable than the one we encountered on Baduizm. Even on the album cover art, not only does she show her face, but she has replaced her wrapped turban with a knitted cap. What has changed? The woman is recovering from a breakup with her baby daddy and partner of 3 years, Andre 3000. In stepping down from her goddess persona, she takes up a new mantle of a regular African-American earthling woman, that quickly grows into female royalty of the new soul movement. And like D’Angelo, she could easily hide for 14 years and still hold that title (please don’t).
“Didn’t Cha Know” goes hand in hand with the first track – they both groove hard and rock out, while being perfectly open about feelings of hopelessness and regret and uncertainty. Also, this bass line is one of my all time favourites, ever. So smooth and sexy. I think it’s Pino Palladino, who is kind of a Soulquarian/NeoSoul staple, also having played with D’Angelo, Bilal, and Common.
Strings build upon each other to introduce “My Life“, offering a brief pause for anticipation of the beat, and once I reach the repeated “no turning back” line, it feels like courage and worship. The transition to “….&On” – her sequel to her earlier hit “On & On” – is flawless. Badu offers some humorous self-criticism with my favourite line on the album, “What good do your words do if they can’t understand you? Don’t go talking that shit, Badu, Badu.” Also, there’s something really refreshing about the break-it-down bridge section. Maybe it’s the reference to her first period? I can’t even say.
“Cleva” reminds me that this is indeed an analogue album in a digital world, and musicians like ?uestlove on the drums, James Poyser on piano and Roy Ayers playing vibes give it a live reality that cannot be sampled. Thematically, “Cleva” is all about being alright with yourself, the very opening lines stating, “This is how I look without makeup, and with no bra my ninny’s sag down low.” Oddly, this is the attitude that gives us such a reverence for Erykah Badu; even as she has shed her mysterious, exotic persona, she grows in majesty and beauty and even a sense of truth.
After the 70’s inspired, flute heavy interlude properly titled, “Hey Sugar“, we finally get the the funky, down-and-dirty, “Booty“. For a moment, you think it’s going to be a straight up The-Boy-is-Mine-style girl fight, with weave pulling and press-on nails, which would be fine. Instead, it becomes a critique of male-centricity as she speaks to the Other Woman with grace and dignity in the chorus: “Hey, hey, hey, I don’t want him, cause what he’s doing to you, and you don’t need him, cause the boy ain’t ready.” Unfortunately, it seems “Booty” didn’t directly inspire a new era of girl-powered pop music. Too bad.
“Kiss Me On My Neck (Hesi)” is simple, thoughtful and poetic, but usually I’m just happy for it to be an excuse to dance with my wife in the kitchen. The stripped down, acoustic guitar plucked, “A.D. 2000” is as political as Mama’s Gun gets, and written about a black man gunned down by cops in NYC, is still sadly pertinent and effective.
“Orange Moon” is just so classy. It starts with crickets, jazz flute, soft vocals, and plenty of chill. How good it is, indeed. And the chill continues on to the only duet of the album, “In Love With You” with Stephen Marley. This song, with the snaps and acoustic guitar are very reminiscent of Lauryn Hill and D’Angelo’s “Nothing Even Matters”, if it had been recorded on her hip-hop/folk MTV Unplugged album.
The mellow groove continues and slowly picks up with the album’s first single, “Bag Lady“, where she encourages the woman to let go of relational and emotional baggage in order to move on and accept love elsewhere. Warning: the music video contains a remix. But I’ll post it anyway. I personally love how bored the woman in purple looks.
“Time’s A Wastin” is the most relaxed expression of urgency I’ve ever know, making it hard to take seriously. It’s ironic, right? I have to admit, I’m not sure. But by the time the next and final track begins, “Green Eyes” makes us forget most of what has come before and demands our full attention, whether over loudspeakers or headphones. We hear a an old-school recording of Erykah as lounge singer over muffled piano and muted trumpet (played by Roy Hargrove!) backing up, singing a very quotable metaphor for jealousy: “My eyes are green ’cause I eat a lot of vegetables. It ain’t got nothing to do with your new friend”. And that’s just Part One (Denial)”.
“Green Eyes” is the masterpiece of the album, interweaving themes of uncertainty and courage and grief and reflection into 10 minutes and 3 movements of shifting grooves and melodies, not to mention emotions, which are summed up pretty well in “Part 2: Acceptance?” with lines like, “But I don’t love you anymore, yes I do, I think loving you is wrong…” and then you have her begging for one more night of love making in “Part 3: Relapse”. Here she is on part 1 and 2 live in Paris…
The song (and album) ends on an unresolved word: “I know our love will never be the same, but I can’t stand these growing pains”, giving me a sense of sad hopefullness. Hope does win out though, because listening to this record 15 years later, we have the advantage of knowing that the this is far from the last we will hear from Erykah Badu. Though it still may be the best.
If I were writing a top ten list of albums that shaped me as a kid, I might as well start by putting this record on top. So forgive me if I wax nostalgic. No matter what song is played from this album, my first mental image is of being in my older brother’s basement room, using his double bed as a stage and a deoderant bottle as a microphone, trying my darndest to be Janet. Before spending countless hours in front of the tv, trying to memorize her brother’s “Thriller” dance, I was taking lessons from Rhythm Nation 1814.
I won’t attempt to talk about this album with mentioning the videos associated with it because very few of us who have ever seen this, can listen to “Rhythm Nation” without being transported to the stark setting of the streets or the sparse warehouse where militant dancers are being trained to transform the world. Janet has a long resume of impressive music videos with high production quality (and costs), however what I love about the videos connected with Rhythm Nation is that they are all very simple ideas and settings allowing the focus to remain on choreography and narrative.
As soon as the bell tolls, opening the album, I am there – one of Janet’s army – and to be honest, I’ve never counted myself out of this number since first hearing this record.
The first three tracks set the foundational concern towards social injustice, calling for a new formation of people along the same line as George Clinton’s One Nation Under a Groove. Here, Janet reminds us that there is still a place for the protest/socially conscious song in R&B that was established in the 60’s and 70’s by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, ect, but had been missing for nearly a decade. Janet is young here, but with the New Jack Swing fathers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis she is able to deliver a call to justice and equality that packs a punch, and keeps us dancing.
After reminding us of the “State of the World”, and delivering her thesis that only “The Knowledge” can conquer the likes of prejudice, ignorance, bigotry and illiteracy, she moves the album along with:
“Get the point? Good. Let’s dance…” and continues to encourage movement with two power dance tracks, “Miss You Much”, and “Love Will Never Do (Without You)”. For someone with such a light wispy voice, she sure knows how to energize her listeners. Still, she never let’s us get too far away from the issues at hand, reminding us to think of the children in “Livin’ In a World (They Didn’t Make)”.
I recently bought this on vinyl, and “Living in a World…” appropriatly concludes the chapter that is side A. When I turn it over I’m thrust back into the action with the brilliant anthem, “Alright”. This song could alone define New Jack Swing with its street class swagger, and marriage of R&B melodies with heavy hip hop beats. Not to mention it boasts one of my favorite music videos of the time. I’m going to go ahead and imbed this one…
Together with “Escapade” these two tracks offer two attempts to hide from the harsh reality, the first with imagination and friendship, the second with flight. “Black Cat” instead faces the danger of the streets as a warning to her lover. Written by Janet herself, I’m not always sure how the harder rock-inspired track fits into this dance record, but it’s an example of decent songwriting that sounds eerily like Michael.
There is a very small part of me that wishes the album ended here. However, the last three tracks prepare us all for Janet’s sexual revolution that is to come. We can’t say she didn’t warn us. I read a review somewhere that said “Lonely” is the sexiest song about not getting any that ever existed. That’s probably true, at least as of 1989. As in any new nation, love is never left out of the equation entirely. Still, when she takes it all the way to the anticipatory “Someday is Tonight”, I just feel dirty. For some reason, this song is so much worse than her way more explicit stuff that comes in the 90’s. I don’t know why, maybe her age, or how it fits on Rhythm Nation... but however I might justify it, this is my favorite track to skip for sheer awkwardness.
A brief Interlude followed by the same bell tolls that open the album asks us not to allow our eyes to deceive us, since it is only our “knowledge and wisdom that separate us”. If I were to critique her philosophy here, I might say we need more than darkness to be blind to our differences, but brighter light to see how deeply we are the same. But that’s not what I’m here to do. The real point is that this unlikely young Jackson does exactly what she sets out to do: inspire us to dance in the darkness and invite everyone to join in, regardless of race or status.