40’s Insights – Songs in the Key of Life

Preconceived: I know Stevie, I think it would be nice to believe you all know at least a little Stevie.  The problem is, while I’ve always enjoyed the hits, somehow I’ve never gotten around to listen to perhaps his best known album all the way through.  It’s not a proud moment for me – given the amount of mindless things I waste my time on….but RC to the rescue!

After Listening:  On the very 1st track you get a hint of that old Motown vocal standard, and it sort of sets you up as you look at the entire double album expanse and you think you know what you’re in for….except then track 2 hits and you get a much grittier, almost precursor to industrial music as a backer to a song about God.   And from there you start thinking….wow, damn what’s next?  Well on the short list of things…a funky musical tribute to guys like Duke Ellington,  a poppy tribute to his daughter, and moments of clear Spanish influence.   You get musical arrangements that are catchy and challenging enough to be engaging rather than numbing…ex “Ordinary Pain’s” stylistic switch from mello, nearly torch song standard to 70’s funk personified.

Let’s talk about the bass on this thing. Stellar. Superlative.  On tracks like “Sir Duke” or “I Wish” ( I mean what a line on that one – wowsa!!) this is of course easily identifiable, but listen to it on more subtle moments like on “As” – smooth and poppy, a perfect interplay to the vocals and bright keys layered on top.

The music in general is excellent, piano playing, bright and sparse moments of guitar, the horns, the drums the backing vocals, and on and on….

Any double album is gonna feel like it drags in points…and this album is no exception, and to me that’s a minor criticism. But its validity is felt I think mostly from “Black Man” – “If it’s magic”.  “I am singing” is strong enough – but “Black man” I think sort of risks a cheese factor with the classroom aspect, and “If it’s magic” appears to be the lone song on the album that offers nothing truly redeeming about its instrumentation or lyrics.

Favorite Tracks – “Sir Duke”  – The ultimate toe tapper…combine that awesome bassline with precisely timed horns, funk piano and Stevie’s vocal punch delivery and you get a winner.  The subject matter giving props to the Duke and other jazz monsters?  A definite A+ bonus.
“Have a Talk with God” – And so I find a gem I hadn’t heard before….the backing here is amazing, it’s like the forerunner to industrial music with bright, almost “happy” major key noises – gritting out a chunky background over a super sludgy bass.
“I Wish” –  I mean do you need more than the 1st 10 secs or so to know this thing rocks, funks, swings, and does everything right?
“Ordinary Pain” – Starts as a light piece with an excellent bassline and Stevie’s clean vocals, morphs into something special midway through, the bass almost drifting into a casio keyboard on overdrive sound, and of course Minny Ripperton and Anna Liffey’s trivia favorite Deniece Williams providing vocals in a very Zappa style progressive funk segment.

Least Favorite Tracks:  “Pastime Paradise” – Maybe it’s Coolio’s fault, but I tend to think I dislike this more on its own merit.  The use of strings gets props, but it’s just something about the melody that takes me out of the thing, it’s sort of whiny and thin….even though the vocals are anything but that.
“If it’s magic” –  It’s not.  The vocals give it a go, they start it 50’s style with what I guess is authentic harp. But there just isn’t a lot there.  On 2nd listen, apart from listening to the rest of the album before it, it’s not terrible – but it could’ve been left on the cutting room floor with no issue.

Overall:  5.0  When your only real criticism is that a double album seemed a little long in places, well….that’s not really much of one.  You’ve got everything that makes an all time classic and influential.  You’ve got musical tributes to 50’s and 60’s Motown, you’ve got the “current” 70’s funk, soul, progressive elements captured, and you even get some of Stevie being ahead of his time with those brief nods to industrial music  He’s got lyrics to go with it all, lyrics that he delivers with passion that falls outside the realm of being trapped in a pop 3-4 min box, the peachier ones are buried in grooves, the less substantial ones blended in an air of enthusiasm and energy.   There is so much on this record, just so much.  An album that lives up to the hype.

40 (45 Posts)

40 has had training enough in classical theory to know roughly what he's talking about. As for talent, he considers himself a crappy guitar player. He has a BA in Audio & Sound Recording BA, so not only does music creation intrigue him, but also music production. He believes that expression takes all forms, and it has to be remembered that music is an art form and is ultimately about connection, communication, experimentation, creativity, freedom, emotion, and 100’s of other things.


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