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Friday, June 10, 2016

Stevie Wonder – Signed, Sealed & Delivered

Year: 1970
Record Rating = 8
Overall Rating = 12

Best Song: Any of the first four tracks

With Stevie's studio debut of the new decade, we're back on track to the greatness that would eventually lead to his early-mid-'70s masterpieces, as he creates a minor masterpiece in its own right. While My Cherie Amour briefly brought him back solidly into covers territory, Signed, Sealed & Delivered is almost as Stevie Wonder original-packed as For Once in My Life; some might see the 7-5 proportions as disheartening compared to the 8-4 of its 1968 predecessor, but rest assured that this album manages to improve on a number of areas lacking on Stevie's last serious album (serious in the artistic sense of pursuing his songwriting, playing and arranging talents, that is). The lone Motown "songwriting guild" collaboration is just as great, if not better, than the last, the selection of covers is more obscure, which allows for different expectations than tackling jazz classics, and fewer of the originals sound like rewrites of each other (only two, rather than three, although I guess that just comes from the one-song shifted proportion of originals to covers), while most of them sound like something Stevie had never done before.

Yet the best indication of the album being one of Stevie's best is the four hit singles that open the album, hits that are not only commercially successful but artistically as well, and are equally strong yet distinct enough from each other for me to not be able to pick one among them as the best, so to my ears they all are the best of the album. "Never Had a Dream Come True", the only one of the four hits that could be called a minor one (although it did disproportionately better in the UK than in the States), is surprisingly subdued for an album opener, although don't take subdued to mean boring. Rather, it's a lovely country-soul ballad along the likes of his last "lightweight" opener to a main album, "A Place in the Sun", and even if their chord progressions are similar, their melodies and overall moods differ enough for this to be its own mini-masterpiece of a Stevie composition. The music on its own is pretty great, with bright guitars playing simple bassline-like passages or slick, country-soul-style licks, piano fills à la Ray Charles, and subtle, swooning string parts (and a solid rhythm section, but that's almost not worth mentioning on a Stevie recording, since it's almost always a given), but it's the vocals and the lyrics that put it over the top; after all, the main "doo-doo-doo" vocal hook where Syreeta Wright (Stevie's soon-to-be short-term wife) harmonizes with Stevie in the last two-thirds of the line is incredibly charming, the passionate vocals allow Stevie to deviate from the main melody of the verses in a way that's incredibly moving, and the lyrics that manage to mix a message of shortcomings in relationships with that of social struggles are especially clever.

Some people might be bothered by the contrast with the second track, a cover of the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out", but I think it works quite well, as it immediately places an emphasis on the album's relative diversity. Besides, this is such an amazing cover that manages to breath new life in a song that already had plenty of its own identity that I can forgive a bit of uncomfortable song juxtaposition. Rather than retaining the dual rhythmic of the straightforward optimistic McCartney-sung verses and the creepy, pessimistic waltz-time Lennon-sung refrains, Stevie fits them into one single rhythm, which, being a distorted clavinet/scratchy guitar/stomping drums funk-pop groove, reimagines its message as purely upbeat, so the urging to stop "fussing and fighting" is one that doesn't depress the person you're trying to convince you can work out your issues with, and it certainly fits Stevie's world view better. Aside from the terrific musical groove, though, is some clever vocal work, where Stevie sings in his normal voice while overdubbing a complementary falsetto vocal part, which double tracks the main voice in the title line and refrains, and by the solo and coda they resemble some of Stevie's best funk jamming of the mid-'70s: in the simple pattern-based harmonica solo, he supplies a catchy "Ha! Ha! Ha! We can work it out!" falsetto hook, and in the final verse is repeated a couple of times with the lead vocals deviating from the melody, one falsetto vocal part does a snapping, quasi-scatting thing while the vocal hook of the harmonica solo returns, all of which manages to be more funky than the main groove itself.

The semi-title track, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)", is something that can even be called funk-rock – I mean, technically the distorted clavinet and guitars of "We Can Work It Out" allow for that genre application as well, but the vocals are definitely more funk-pop, but it's all semantics. Anyways, it starts with a descending sitar line that complements the repeatedly descending/ascending bassline in the main song quite well and a howling James Brown-esque scream that any white R&B-oriented rock band across the Atlantic would kill for that few could achieve. Meanwhile, the horns throughout could come from a James Brown funk machine just as much as they could come from Little Richard's horn-fueled rock or more revivalist rock of the late '60s, although most importantly they punctuate the refrain with a simple, menacing rising line and less notable, but fills that still definitely cook in the verses. And finally, the vocals are killer, with Stevie slyly and speedily going through the words, bouncing along with the tight groove of the instruments, throwing in more of the previously mentioned James Brown screams as needed, and the backing vocal trio of Syreeta Wright, Venetta Fields and Lynda Tucker Lawrence adding emphasis with "oohs" and "aahs" in the verses and howling out the refrain incessantly. It's a shame Ms. Fields isn't as prominent as on the live performance from Live at the Talk of the Town, but that's about as much a complaint I could possibly voice in this situation.

If Ron Miller's "Heaven Help Us All", the final hit, shocks you with its success because of its religious connotation, just remember that this was the early '70s, and African-Americans were especially religious at the time, and religiously themed pop music could not only be tolerable, it could be great (unlike religious music since the late '70s where Born Again Christians created Christian rock/pop/etc. which is just generic preaching with generic backing). Most of all, though, it's a success because it's just a great slice of gospel-pop. It starts off quiet enough, with twinkling pianos, some subtle strings and a quasi-confessional vocal where Stevie asks the heavens to look past mankind's flaws and look at all the good in the world (set to a terrific melody, of course) that concludes in the boisterous title refrain where Stevie is accompanied by powerful female backing vocals and jubilant horns and where the pianos become bombastic. It sounds simple, sure, but there's no need for complexity when the message isn't, and it's thanks to its simplicity that I can consider this one of the greatest examples of religious ecstasy in music this side of Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" (which I'm sure at least partially influenced Ron Miller here).

With such a great four-song start, the rest of the album could consist of re-recordings of some of Stevie's more mediocre filler of the mid-to-late-'60s and still be relatively unharmed as an album, although fortunately there is plenty of other worthy material, among which there are some noteworthy highlights, and songs that normally would seem filler-ish but here turn out quite alright. Ironically, it's the two funkiest tracks of the post-single part of the album that I don't consider to be highlights, even if I like them quite a bit. After all, "Joy (Takes Over Me)" retains some of the better elements of the title track in its arrangement (sitar used as a solid companion to the funky groove, ecstatic, explosive vocals full of shouts and screams) without coming off as a rip-off (which, being a cover isn't exactly possible). Maybe the melody isn't as great, but that's not Stevie's fault, and he and the backup vocalists manage to make it more interesting than it is.

"You Can't Judge a Book by Its Cover" is slightly better, being an original, and only appears lesser because it directly follows the four singles. After all, a song with a bluesy stop-and-start clavinet riff like this one emphasized by cool guitar/piano interplay and a refrain as insanely catchy as this (which even has a hint of social commentary in its second line, "you can't judge a love by the lover", making it a perfect anthem for interracial marriage proponents at the time) would have definitely been a highlight on, say, My Cherie Amour, and it not being a highlight here speaks more of the overall quality of the album rather than any flaws of the track. The only perceivable flaws can be attributed to its groove being cut from the same cloth as "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day" and "You Met Your Match", which is hardly a problem at all, and maybe the fact that the horns aren't nearly as prominent as I would like.

The funk-pop on the album is significantly better, churning out one highlight to close the first side, "Sugar". After a short, pretty, jazzy, piano intro, Stevie supplies a light groove that can definitely be called sweet, in the obvious sense of it accentuating the pop elements of it rather than the funk, with little guitar chunks à la mid-'60s soul pop and a danceable rhythm section, although the main musical hooks are the peppy horn parts (which almost have a hint of ska influence to them), the interplay with the guitar and bass they have at the end of each refrain line, and the surprisingly tense bluesy lead guitar work throughout. The vocals are pretty sweet too in the sense that the melody could almost be called bubblegum soul, and it's sung with a falsetto part harmonizing with a main vocal part the whole time, reprising one of the main charms of "We Can Work It Out", especially by the coda where the falsetto vocals improvise to the beat of the tune. The third and final song with the double-tracked tenor/falsetto, "Anything You Want Me to Do", makes just as good use of the vocal trick, this time with a quasi-doo-wop chord progression (albeit faster), and only falls short of being a highlight because there's no particular standout in its musical arrangement.

On the ballad front, there's a trio of fine orchestrated numbers that show Stevie can still woo you in that field, like side two opener "Don't Know Why", which, with its dramatic strings, cascading pianos, and soulful vocals that often threaten to break out into speak-singing, makes for a fine contrast with the generally more up-tempo first side. The other two are arguably better, with one of them, "I Can't Let My Heaven Walk Away", having since taken the side opener's place as a highlight having discovered its charms much later. It's essentially a Temptations-style ballad circa 1966 (I might actually be a song they covered and I don't remember it), with throbbing bass, sharp string parts and bluesy piano as its musical core, cute little "oh no" female vocals punctuating the refrain, call and response vocals in the verses and some fine lead vocals that, when they get really tense, almost mirror David Ruffin's intonation when he was still in the Temptations. In other words, this is way closer to the spirit of that fine Motown group that Stevie's earlier cover of their "My Girl" hit.

"I Gotta Have a Song" is probably the most "energetic" of the ballads. It may start off with soft jazzy guitars, shuffled drumming and nimble bass, but as it gets closer to the refrain, it becomes a quasi-classical horn-backed nostalgic ode to the power of music, and during the refrain itself, it becomes an almost depressing urge for it, as Stevie's plea of the title is complemented by a rising "ah-ah-ah" line and in later refrains silly little "coo-coos" in a delightful whirlwind of voices (or just Stevie's voice, technically). The closer that follows it is in its own category – one I'd call soul-pop meets jazz lounge or something – and is enjoyable in part thanks to the contrast with the penultimate track. In a way, "Something to Say" reminds me of the last subtle Stevie album closer, "Hey Love", with lyrics in the "I Want to Tell You" vein that don't really express anything other than the inability to do so. Musically, though, I'd give this one a clear nod over the Down to Earth finale: the stuttering drums, the melancholic, jazzy horns, the cute little guitar chicka-chicks and the soft piano chords in the verses certainly create a fuller sound, and the harmonica solo emulating the vocal melody (a lovely one, of course) backed by chirping combo organs is a rather relaxing conclusion to the album, which fits well after all the tension from the funk-pop or powerful ballads, making it at least a minor highlight.

While this album might be neglected when placed next to Stevie's early-to-mid-'70s masterpieces, it's easily the best album preceding them (aside from Music of My Mind, which was technically released a few months before Talking Book, and some include it in the category), with both great hits and underrated album cuts for any fan of soul and R&B. Perhaps it could have been better if they split the four singles across the two sides for people not to be tempted to shut it off after the final notes of "Heaven Help Us All" fade away, but otherwise it's fairly even and consistent for an album that begins the way it does, and if you want to start your Stevie collection with something preceding his most popular albums, this would be a pretty decent start. I would still recommend his two or three best 1960s albums first to truly get the feel of his evolution, but then that's just my completist tendencies talking. And if you consider yourself a Stevie fan and you haven't heard at least the album's four singles, then hurry up and get the damn thing!

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