Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Average-At-Best, Hotter Than July By Stevie Wonder Is More Lukewarm.

The Good: Some socially conscious lyrics
The Bad: Musically boring, Vocally unchallenging, Repetitive, Short
The Basics: Arguably one of the most boring Stevie Wonder albums, Hotter Than July has one great song and a lot of 80's funk filler!

Fans of a musical artist tend to dislike hearing or reading that their preferred musical artist has put out a lemon, but it happens and it tends to even happen to the best of artists (in all mediums). Even musical geniuses like Stevie Wonder have their off albums and Hotter Than July is one of the albums of his that is the very easiest to pass by, especially now. For those keeping score, one of my problems with the one-disc version of Stevie Wonder's The Definitive Collection was that it was lacking in the song "Happy Birthday." That song is present here, but none of the other tracks on the album hold a candle to it.

In fact, outside the social consciousness evident on "Happy Birthday" and a few of the other tracks, Hotter Than July is repetitive, boring and all of the best tracks are on subsequent compilation albums, so passing on this album does not leave one lacking in anything essentially Stevie Wonder. And to fall back to one of my old standards, if the best songs are on compilations, it is hard to recommend the original album.

With only ten songs, clocking out at 45:52, Hotter Than July is a pretty generic early '80's pop-funk album and it holds up poorly over multiple listens, despite largely being the musical vision of artist Stevie Wonder. And this is largely Stevie Wonder's musical creation; he wrote the music to all ten tracks and only co-wrote the lyrics to "All I Do." The rest of the lyrics were all written by Wonder and he provides the lead vocals for every single track.

As well, Stevie Wonder reminds the listener just how impressive he can be instrumentally. He plays multiple instruments on each track, often performing all of the instrumentation. He is no slouch in the instrument department either. On Hotter Than July, he plays (well): Vocoder, synthesizer (regular, farlight and bass), pianos, drums, bells, flute synthesizer, percussion, clavinet, cabasa, celeste, harpsichord, arp, and harmonica. As well, he produced the album and so it is hard to argue that this is not Stevie Wonder's intended musical vision or statement.

The problem is, while the album has its moments and there are a few different styles - "Master Blaster (Jammin')" has a Jamaican sound to it that is pretty different for Wonder - it is mostly repetitive, dull and not as impressive creatively or socially as many of Wonder's other works. The entire album has a very produced sound and every track is very musically full, like Wonder has suddenly become terrified of silences in his songs. Hotter Than July is driven by percussion on almost every track so there is a strangely homogenous sound to the album and most of the songs are energetic and full of sound in the same way. The result is that the songs blend together more than on some of Wonder's other albums.

As well, Wonder is hardly as articulate on Hotter Than July with his vocals as he is on every other work I have heard of his. "Did I Hear You Say You Love Me" actually has lines Wonder seems to mumble or vocalize in such a way that they cannot easily be interpreted and that is a real change for Stevie Wonder! Some of the other songs - "All I Do," "Master Blaster (Jammin')," etc. - have a few lines as well that are strangely obscured, which is something Wonder never seemed to do before this album.

As well, Wonder's range is very safe - save on "Happy Birthday" - on the songs on Hotter Than July. He does not seem to be about pushing himself vocally on this album. So, the softness of "Rocket Love" is safe (and oh so boring) and "I Ain't Gonna Stand For It" is smooth and hardly as rebellious as the title or lyrics would suggest. Wonder doesn't put the energy into his vocals to match the lines he wrote . . . except on "Happy Birthday."

For those who might be unaware of "Happy Birthday," Stevie Wonder was at the forefront of the movement to get a national holiday for the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition to devoting space in the liner notes to this worthy cause, he gave the final song on the album to raise awareness to the cause. Wonder does it quite articulately as he asks and explores, "Why has there never been a holiday / Where peace is celebrated / All throughout the world? / The time is overdue / For people like me and you / Who know the way to truth / Is love and unity to all God's children / It should be a great event / And the whole day should be spent / In full remembrance / Of those who lived and died for the oneness of all people . . ." ("Happy Birthday"). Few artists devote a song to such things and few do it as well as Wonder can, making it both articulate and a great song!

Unfortunately, it seems like Wonder has spent all his passionate and intellectual capital on this album on the one song. "Do Like You" is horribly repetitive and somewhat inane and he is plagued at other parts with obvious and unfortunate rhymes. After repetitive refrains on "Cash In Your Face," for example, Wonder wrote lines like "Our first child is due here any day / That's why we're desperate for a place to stay / The location is so perfect too / So please try to do what you can do" which seem well below his creative ability. As well, the song doesn't have as well-constructed a social message, though it is clearly about the demands of capitalism in our society and what people will do to survive.

And even Wonder's attempts at exploring the usually universal themes of love are underwhelming on Hotter Than July. For example, the song "Rocket Love" is mellow and mumbled and when one looks up the lyrics, they find they have been struggling to hear "You took me riding in your rocket, gave me a star / But at a half a mile from heaven you dropped me back / down to this cold, cold world." The most articulate love song on the album is about the loss of love and it just sounds singsongy and silly at the end of the day.

Stevie Wonder is a musical genius, but Hotter Than July is one of his off-albums. The only song from it truly worth hearing is "Happy Birthday," though "Rocket Love" and "Master Blaster (Jammin')" do seem to make it onto some of the subsequent compilations. Wonder is vocally and musically unchallenging and he fails to innovate on this album. The result is that it is largely forgettable and can easily be passed by.

The best track is "Happy Birthday," the low point is "Do Like You."

For other works by Stevie Wonder, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Jazz Soul Of Little Stevie
Eivets Rednow
Music Of My Mind
Talking Book
Songs In The Key Of Life
Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I
In Square Circle
Conversation Peace
Natural Wonder
The Definitive Collection
A Time To Love


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

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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