Friday, December 9, 2011

Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I Is Good, But Not Definitive Stevie Wonder!

The Good: Interesting musically, Decent vocals, Some good lyrics
The Bad: Repetitive quality, more complete compilations came later.
The Basics: A good, but not extraordinary, compilation, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I captures a great period in Wonder's artistic development.

It is a rare thing in my musical exploration of a musical artist that I start anywhere but with their beginning and then work my way toward their end. With my current male Artist Of The Month, Stevie Wonder, I am taking what I can get as I get it, it appears. As a result, I have started my exploration of his works with his later albums, Conversation Peace (reviewed here!) and A Time To Love (reviewed here!) and I have managed to only work my way back to his compilation and live albums. The first compilation - still too early in his career to truly be considered a "Greatest Hits" album - was Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, which is a collection of his music from 1971 through 1982, essentially the period right before he hit it big with "I Just Called To Say I Love You."

Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I presents Stevie Wonder as a classic Rhythm and Blues artist who makes music that is funky, articulate and smart. The songs on this compilation present a Stevie Wonder who is more mature, but still energetic. He is not the child phenomenon he was when he began and he is not yet the icon of pop-r&b he became. His music is strangely straightforward and driven by piano/synths and percussion largely. In fact, it is hard to classify this album as anything other than "upbeat."

With sixteen tracks, clocking out at 85:44, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I (there is no "Musiquarium II" to date, though when this was originally released it was on two records), is a decent exploration of the sounds and songs of singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder. Wonder wrote all of the songs, save "Front Line," which he co-wrote with Gary Byrd. Wonder provides the lead vocals for all of the songs and plays instruments - usually pianos or synthesizers - on all of the tracks. As well, Wonder does a lot of his own backing vocals as well as other instrumentals. He is credited with producing the album also. In other words, this is very much the musical vision of Stevie Wonder.

And it is a good one. Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I includes such notable favorites as "Sir Duke," "Superstition" and "Higher Ground." To add some actual enduring value to the album for fans of Wonders, Stevie Wonder wrote and recorded four new songs, like "That Girl" and "Front Line." The songs are a mix of slower, appreciative love songs like "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" and "Isn't She Lovely" and funkier hits like "Living For The City" and "Do I Do." This album - despite not including anywhere near all of Wonder's best and greatest hits - is a good representative sampling of the work Wonder was producing at that point in his career.

Right off the bat, Stevie Wonder has a great lyrical sensibility to him. Despite a strong overuse of repetition on songs like "Boogie On Reggae Woman," he manages to have a message and he articulates it well. Sure, some of the lines are just fun, loving and flirtatious, like "I'd like to see both of us / Fall deeply in love / I'd like to see you na... / Under the stars above / Yes I would / I'd like to see both of us / Fall deeply in love - yeah / I'd like to see you in the raw / Under the stars above/ So boogie on reggae woman / What is wrong with you / Boogie on reggae woman / What you tryin' to do" ("Boogie On Reggae Woman"). Wonder creates danceable funk classics with songs like that and they sound good and have meaning even today. And, let's face it, it is classier than some of the rap lyrics about watching women dance!

Similarly, Wonder sings about music itself on "Sir Duke," one of his most recognizable songs (if not by its title). As a musical artist, this plays quite well into the idea of singing about what he knows and Wonder does that well when he sings "Music is a world within itself / With a language we all understand / With an equal opportunity / For all to sing, dance and clap their hands / But just because a record has a groove / Don't make it in the groove / But you can tell right away at letter A / When the people start to move / They can feel it all over / They can feel it all over people" ("Sir Duke"). Wonder goes on to list some true greats of jazz and the big band era to prove his point and he might well be one of the first artists to sing about the effects of music in the rock and roll era. "Sir Duke" has a timeless quality and one can only guess that anyone imaginative enough to do a cover of the song now would surely have to include Stevie Wonder in the list!

As for the new songs unique to this album, I found myself less enthusiastic about them. Take, for example, "Ribbon In The Sky." With its lyrics like "Oh so long for this night I prayed / That a star would guide you my way / To share with me this special day / Where a ribbon's in the sky for our love / If allowed may I touch your hand / And if pleased may I once again / So that you too will understand / There's a ribbon in the sky for our love . . . We can't lose with God on our side / We'll find strength in each tear we cry . . . " ("Ribbon In The Sky") it is far more singsongy than any number of other, better tracks on the album. It does not resonate like, for example "Higher Ground" or even "Superstitious."

But some of the lesser known songs are bound to impress fans and those just getting into Stevie Wonder. For example, "Do I Do," a ten minute song, has a trumpet solo by none other than Dizzy Gillespie!

And it is worth noting that Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I is a pretty solid, dancable album. The instrumentals are packed with sound (there are no stark tracks on this album) and Wonder's trademark mastery over many different instruments lends itself well to a rich, funky sound on the entire album.

As well, Wonder's vocals are smooth and expressive. Despite the complexity of some of his lines, Stevie Wonder manages to make everything sound good. He is expressive and songs like the well known "Superstitious" illustrate an impressive range, which Wonder seems comfortable traversing. But more often than not, Wonder stays in the mid-range vocals that he seems most comfortable with and he strains his voice with emotion more than note-range. That works well for him.

Despite not being all of his best and having a few dud new tracks, Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I is a solid compilation and anyone looking to get into the works of Stevie Wonder will find this invaluable to their musical education.

The best track is "Do I Do," the low point is "Ribbon In The Sky."

For other former Artist Of The Month artists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire
Album 1700 - Peter, Paul And Mary
Forty Licks - The Rolling Stones


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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