Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Live And Different, Stevie Wonder's Natural Wonder Is A Good, But Pointless, Live Album.

The Good: Great vocals, Decent mix of songs, Good duration, Generally the lack of "live" conceits
The Bad: A few weak tracks, Not much differentiation from studio tracks.
The Basics: A good album(s), Natural Wonder adds little to Stevie Wonder's overall repertoir and might be ideal for those looking for a decent, if slightly different, "Best Of" album.

Live albums tend to suffer mercilessly under my pen. Indeed, one of the most scathing musical reviews I think I ever wrote was when my beloved Oasis released their noisy, jumbled and ultimately pointless Familiar To Millions (reviewed here!). In fact, it is entirely possible that the only time I have found a live album to be perfect was recently with Janis Ian's Live: Working Without A Net. So when I rate the two-disc "live" album by Stevie Wonder, Natural Wonder as less than perfect, it is not like I am picking on Stevie Wonder or just posting to buck the trend of how this album has been reviewed so far.

No, Natural Wonder is a good collection, but there is something about it that (after eight listens to each disc) is just not clicking with me. I think I have it nailed down, too. James Taylor's early works make for pointless "live" album experiences. After all, his style and form is so close to live in the early years of his work anyway, it is hard to make a live experience truly different from his studio recordings. Stevie Wonder falls into some weird parallel category, I feel. Wonder's vocals are remarkably straightforward and comparable to any of his studio albums on Natural Wonder, save that this album is mixed so they can always be heard (i.e. the instrumentals never overwhelm his vocals here). But the album lacks the instrumental intensity of most of Wonder's works, embodied perfectly by the fact that Wonder is only able to play one instrument at a time on this performance (on many of his albums he takes on . . .well, all of the instruments). At the same time, this is not an acoustic performance by any mean. In other words, it is good, comparable to studio albums but not different enough to make the listener sit up and say "wow, I've never heard Stevie Wonder that way before!"

And this is, very much, the musical vision of Stevie Wonder. With two discs, twenty-four tracks - thirteen tracks (clocking out at 59:55 ) and eleven tracks (coming out at 44:59) - Natural Wonder is a live concert album with Stevie Wonder performing on his piano, keyboards and harmonica. He provides the lead vocals on each and every song and he is credited with producing the album as well. The songs are all written by Wonder and so it seems to be his musical vision for a live album.

Right off the bat, it is imperative to compliment Wonder on his choice to minimize the live noises of the concert. I loathe that conceit and perhaps once per album (most notably on "I Just Called To Say I Love You") the audience may be heard. Otherwise, this is Stevie Wonder carrying the performance and the crowd at the concert is only implied. This is only problematic when Wonder calls out to his audience and they do not appear to respond. Actually, it is kind of funny, in its own way.

Anyway, Stevie Wonder presents a live performance that - vocally - sounds like most of his other performances, which makes one wonder "what's the point?" The way I negotiated this in my mind was that here Wonder's music is not overbearing or so synth driven that it becomes musically jumbled the way some of his albums have been known to be. Instead, this is pleasant, universally smooth and a great representative sampling of the music of Stevie Wonder. Not dominated by the newer works or just the classic Wonder, this 1995 recording encapsulates well the (approximately) thirty years of Wonder's music that preceded it.

Lyrically, of course, this is a fine collection of some of the best of Stevie Wonder's songs. There is a full tracklist under "view details" but fans and those looking to become more familiar with Wonder will find classics like "Higher Ground," "My Cherie Amour," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours" and "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life." These easily recognizable songs are set alongside newer or more obscure works like "Ribbon In The Sky" and "Tomorrow Robins Will Sing." This is a great mix of songs.

And Stevie Wonder has a wonderful sensibility toward mixing the complex and the simple. Perhaps the epitome of his popularity came in the blissfully simplistic "I Just Called To Say I Love You" when Wonder's smooth vocals rang out (as he does here on Natural Wonder): "No April rain / No flowers bloom / No wedding Saturday within the month of June / But what it is, is something true / Made up of these three words that I must say to you / I just called to say I love you / I just called to say how much I care / I just called to say I love you / And I mean it from the bottom of my heart." The sentiment, the rhyme scheme, the lines are all so simple and he presents it in almost a singsong way, but he makes it work perfectly. It seems profound with his voice and intensity and that works for the song and the album.

The nice thing about expanding one's appreciation for Stevie Wonder through albums like Natural Wonder is that we get great, clear performances of new (to us) songs, like "Another Star," which closes the album. As one who grew up in the 1980s, I am pretty sure I never heard this song before now, yet it instantly impressed me with lines like "For you / There might be another song / But all my heart can hear is your melody / So long ago my heart without demanding / Informed me that no other love could do / But listen did I not though understanding / Fell in love with one / Who would break my heart in two " ("Another Star"). Stevie Wonder is a true poet and even when he uses rhymes that have been done to death, he makes them sound new.

What is perhaps most impressive about Stevie Wonder - lyrically - is his willingness and ability to tackle some of the most difficult issues in a straightforward manner. He is continually singing for social justice and on Natural Wonder, he is sure to include a song or two like that. So, it is no surprise when he directly performs his song "Ms. & Mr. Little Ones" and clearly articulates "What kind of name is that you're calling her / I've heard that word before / But I don't think any parent would give their / daughter a name so low / And about this extra paraphernalia / You say you're carrying to get high / That won't take you anywhere you want to go / Well, you don't have to listen / Cause it's here for you to see / So many burnt out lives trapped in their misery." Stevie Wonder is direct, passionate and socially conscious and he brings that well to his live performance, as one might hope or expect from him.

Instrumentally, Natural Wonder is almost universally mellow with songs like "Stay Gold" ringing out in a way that make it clear why Stevie Wonder is considered a master of r&b. There is nothing particularly frenetic on this album (not even his performances of "Sir Duke" or "Dancing To The Rhythm") so those using Wonder to dance to will find this a somewhat inadequate album in that regard. But for those looking for a smooth, soulful live experience for a night with a loved one in front of a fire, this is a great one to kick back with.

The best tracks are "Ms. & Mr. Little Ones" (Disc 1) and "I Just Called To Say I Love You" (Disc 2) and the low points are "Ribbon In The Sky" (Disc 1) and the strangely unmemorable "Overjoyed" which opens the second disc.

For other works by Stevie Wonder, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I
Conversation Peace
A Time To Love


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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