Music Discoveries: Stevie Wonder, 1970-1982


When I was a kid, on an occasion when my mother took me shopping at Bradlee’s, I wandered into the electronics department and heard a stereo system blasting “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. A young, slender African American man (I remember thinking he resembled Raj from “What’s Happening”) was dancing in front of the stereo, clapping his hands and shouting out “yeah” at intervals. And really what greater testament to the music of Stevie Wonder than to say it is the type of music that will make you dance, clap, and shout in Bradlee’s.

For this Music Discovery, I did not listen to every recording Stevie Wonder ever made, but focused on a dozen years or so during which he had his greatest artistic output and critical success. To warm up for this, I first listened to Wonder’s hit songs from the 1960s.

1 Fingertips Pts. 1 & 2
2 Hey Harmonica Man
3 Uptight (Everything’s Alright)
4 A Place In The Sun
5 I Was Made To Love Her
6 I’m Wondering
7 Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da-Day
8 Alfie
9 For Once In My Life
10 I Don’t Know Why
11 Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday
12 My Cherie Amour

Of these songs, “Fingertips” never fails to wow me with its combination of raw talent and exuberance in performance. “My Cherie Amour” is kind of cheezy ballad but its always been a sentimental favorite of mine.

And now on to the 1970s.

AlbumSigned, Sealed & Delivered
Release Date: August 1970
Favorite Tracks: “Signed, Sealed & Delivered,” “Heaven Help Us All”,  & “Never Had a Dream Come True”
Thoughts: 20-year-old Stevie Wonder is beginning to make his own artistic choices and statements musically and lyrically while still in the standard Motown mold.  A consistent album with “Heaven Help Us All” offering gospel styles and socially conscious lyrics as the stand out track.
Rating: ***


AlbumWhere I’m Coming From
Release Date: April 1971
Favorite Tracks:”Do Yourself A Favor,” “If You Really Love Me,”  & “I Wanna Talk To You”
Thoughts: Wonder’s first fully-independent recording is compared to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On due to the focus on war and social issues but I’m also hearing similarities in musical experimentation to what Funkadelic was doing in the same period.  “Do Yourself A Favor” and “If You Really Love Me” are the standout tracks with “I Wanna Talk To You” and entertainingly weird dialogue between Wonder and a racist white person (also voiced by Wonder).  There’s a lot of inconsistency over the course of the album with ballads getting the “soft rock” treatment, and the finale “Sunshine in Their Eyes” gets an A-for-effort for experimentation but comes out sounding a bit of a mess.
Rating: ***


AlbumMusic of My Mind
Release Date: March 1972
Favorite Tracks: “Love Having You Around,” “Happier than the Morning Sun,” and “Keep On Running”
Thoughts: Alternately funky and silky-smooth soulful, the first of the classic period albums displays Wonder’s versatile vocal abilities and experiments with keyboards.  For such a  notable album I was surprised that I wasn’t familiar with any of these tracks but there’s a remarkable consistency through the album.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumTalking Book
Release Date:  October 1972
Favorite Tracks: “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “Superstition,” “Big Brother,” and “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”
Thoughts: This album has a timeless quality, it sounds like it could’ve been released this year.  It must’ve been revelatory when people first heard it in 1972.  Wonder experiments with numerous keyboards, synthesizers, and drums, continuing as a one-man band on many tracks, but also has numerous guest artists including Jim Gilstrap, Lani Groves, David Sandborn, Deniece Williams, Ray Parker, Jr., and Jeff Beck.  Also, “Superstition” is one of the all-time great songs.  It never fails to amaze me.
Rating: ****


AlbumInnervisions
Release Date: August 1973
Favorite Tracks: “Living for the City,” “Higher Ground,” and “He’s Misstra Know-It-All”
Thoughts: Overall a more jazzy disc with some funk overtones.  Not at as consistent as previous albums with some valleys and peaks, but when the peaks are “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” they are some mighty fine peaks!  Also, “He’s Misstra Know-It-All” is all too relevant for our times.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumFulfillingness’ First Finale
Release Date:  July 1974
Favorite Tracks:  “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” “Boogie On Reggae Woman,”  “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and “They Won’t Go When I Go”
Thoughts: A somber and less-optimistic album, both musically and lyrically, compared with its predecessors.  A strong gospel influence runs through the album alongside funk, soul, and jazz improvisation.
Rating: ****

 

AlbumSongs in the Key of Life
Release Date:  September 1976
Favorite Tracks: “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” “Sir Duke,” “I Wish” and “Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)”
Thoughts: A sprawling album of 21 tracks, many of them over 5 minutes long, that originally was released as a two LPs with a bonus  EP.  It’s reminiscent of the Beatles’ “white album” both in the exploration of musical styles and the thought that maybe this could be trimmed down to a solid single album, but which tracks would you cut?  Nevermind, splendor in the surplus of sound.
Rating: ***1/2


AlbumHotter than July
Release Date: September 1980
Favorite Tracks: “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for it” and “Master Blaster (Jammin’)”
Thoughts:  After averaging more than 1 studio album per year from 1962 to 1976, Stevie Wonder took a long break after Songs in the Key of Life (itself a double album).  He recorded a soundtrack Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants” in 1979, and finally returned to a traditional studio album with this recording in 1980.  He shows of his musical versatility with the contemporary country sound of “I Ain’t Gonna Stand for It” and the reggae homage to Bob Marley of “Master Blaster (Jammin’).”  All in all, a solid album with a mix of funk, disco, and jazz-inspired improvisation.
Rating: ***

To finish things up, I listened to  the compilation album Stevie Wonder’s Original Musiquarium I, which includes 16 of the great songs from the 1970s and four new tracks:    “Front Line”, “Ribbon in the Sky”, “That Girl”, and “Do I Do.” Of these “Front Line” is a great funk number telling a still relevant story about a man sent to war, disabled, and returns to the poverty and desperation of his family and neighborhood.  The middle two songs are forgetable ballads, but I do remember “Do I Do” getting a ton of airplay as a kid, albeit lacking the Dizzy Gillespie trumpet solo, and Stevie Wonder’s rap that turns into scatting on the fadeout.  They must’ve played a radio edit, which is a shame.

If you wish to enjoy all the favorite tracks cited above, I’ve put them together in a Tidal playlist. You can’t go to Bradlee’s anymore, but wherever you are you can crank up the music, dance, clap, and shout “yeah!”

 

 

Beer Review: Almanac Pilsner


Beer: Craft Pilsner
Brewer: Almanac Beer Co. 
Source: Can
Rating: **** (8.5 of 10)
Comments: Almanac pours out golden, yet cloudy with a lot of effervescence and a thick head.  The aroma is of fresh cut grains and citrus with a flavor of mild hops balanced with a hint of sweet cream.  There’s minimal lacing and a light mouthfeel.  Overall this is great stuff.

Ten Years


Today is the tenth anniversary of the very first post on this blog!

A lot has changed in my life in those ten years where Panorama of the Mountains is one constant.

Then:

Married for just over a year with no children.

Now:

Married for just over 11 years with a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old.


Then:

Rented the top floor of a three-decker in Somerville, MA.

Now:

Own the top floor of a three-decker in Jamaica Plain, MA.


Then:

Worked in an academic library’s access services department specializing in interlibrary loan.

Now:

Work in the same library’s special collections department as a processing archivist and records management analyst.


Then:

Worshiped and was very active in a local Catholic church community.

Now:

Worship and not quite nearly as active in a local United Church of Christ community.


Then:

Didn’t own a cellphone and never planned to get one.

Now:

Smartphone addict.


Then:

Commuted everywhere by bike.

Now:

Still try to bike, but end up using public transit most of the time.


Then:

It seemed that personal blogging was going out of style just as I was getting started.

Now:

I was right. Nowadays people who get attention as “bloggers” are professional journalists and writers (or those who want to be professional) writing online, and the personal blog has all but gone by the wayside.

And yet I keep blogging.

This past year has been particularly fruitful as far as blogging.  I’ve been more consistent in writing and posting regularly (everyday for a time from December to June) and participated in The A-to-Z Challenge.  I’ve always felt that the audience for this blog is myself, and I’ve founded both a handy outlet for personal expression as well as a great reference tool to go back and see what I wrote about a particular thing at the time.

Nevertheless, I find it discouraging that I see a lot of bloggerss out there have built a community around their blogs with a core group of people commenting and reading one another’s blogs.  I’ve never been able to replicate that kind of interaction here despite various tactics including posting every day, writing on a variety of topics, participating in challenges, commenting on other blogs, and promoting my posts on social media.  Perhaps what I write is just not very interesting to most people.

Going forward I’m thinking of making changes to this blog starting in the new year, perhaps even coming up with a new name (suggestions are welcome).  I’m thinking of working on the quality of my posts rather than the quantity, so I intend to continue to post consistently if less often.  Here are some changes I have in mind:

Book Reviews
Movie/TV Reviews
Photoposts

I expect that these types of posts will continue to be common. Instead of saving them for a particular day of the week to publish, I think I’ll just go back to posting them just after I finish reading/watching/photographing.  I’m also hoping with the book reviews to become more literary and expansive in my discussion of the books.

Beer Reviews

I’ve reached a point where I find myself looking long and hard for beers I’ve never tried before so I can review them and it’s getting exhausting.  I need to reduce my beer consumption in general so I’m going to ax the beer reviews.  Perhaps if I try a particularly remarkable beer I will post a review about it, but it won’t be a regular feature.

Song of the Week
Album of the Month
Podcasts of the Week

I’m going to join these all together into a monthly “What I am listening to now” post, and again work on my narrative style of reviewing and reflecting on these things.

Music Discovery

This was fun to do, less fun to write about, and most likely dreadful for you to try to read.  I’m going to revamp this as a once-a-month feature, and instead of the album-by-album synopsis just work on writing up an overall narrative of the artist in question with a list of favorite albums and songs.

What else?

I’d like to continue to strive to write on politics and current events.  I wrote a few good posts in the past year, but I always find myself taking so long to get my thoughts together on an issue that it ceases to be relevant.  I hope to be more timely and make a positive contribution to these discussions and debates.

I’ve an idea for a series on my favorite TV shows of all time (much like I’ve done for books, albums, and songs) but the posts would be more narrative and tying together themes rather than making lists.

And perhaps I’ll finally write the series on urban development and transportation issues I’ve long been ruminating over.

Thanks to everyone who has read, commented, and shared Panorama of the Mountains over the past decade.  I hope to make it worth continued reading!

Previously:

 

Beer Review: Allagash Sixteen Counties Ale


BeerSixteen Counties Ale
Brewer: Allagash Brewing Company
Source: Draft
Rating: **** (8.8 of 10)
Comments:

A golden/orange beer offering yeasty and grassy aromas.  The flavor is a complex balance of fruits, spices, yeast, and grains.  A smooth and robust beer.  I love it.

 

From the same brewery:

 

Beer Review: Peak Organic IPA Evergreen 


Beer: Evergreen IPA
Brewer: Peak Organic Brewing Company
Source: Can
Rating: *** (7.7 of 10)
Comments: A cloudy golden/orange in color, this beer offers an appropriately piney aroma.  The flavor is grassy with hints of spice and a hop aftertaste.  It’s basically a liquid Christmas tree, and a like it.

From the same brewery:

 

Book Review: Find Me by Laura van den Berg


Author:Laura van den Berg
TitleFind Me
Publication Info: New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.
Summary/Review:
This novel is the story of a young woman named Joy, an orphan raised in various foster homes, who becomes a test subject in a remote hospital when she is found to be immune to a deadly disease sweeping the United States.  The disease has the effect of causing people to lose their memories and the book uses the disease to symbolically explore memory and identity.  Joy’s first person narrative switches between flashbacks to her life as a foster child and the increasing despair of living in the prison-like hospital with people dying around her.  About 2/3’s of the way of the novel Joy escapes and ventures out to try to find her birth mother (this is written on the dust jacket so it’s not really a spoiler). From this point on it feels like a lot of the characters are there just to serve a symbolic role in Joy’s life rather than seeming like realistic characters.  I’ll say this is an interesting premise and mostly engrossing book with an unsatisfying ending.
Recommended books: Flu by Gina Kolata
Rating: ***

Book Review: American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund S. Morgan


Author: Edmund S. Morgan
TitleAmerican Slavery, American Freedom
Narrator: Sean Pratt
Publication Info: Gildan Media, LLC (2013)
Summary/Review:
This book is not so much a history of slavery as it is an economic history of Colonial Virginia.  In a sense, understanding the conditions of Colonial Virginia is important to understanding how this English community came to adopt chattel slavery based on race.  But reading the book the topics vary far and wide from the concepts of slavery and their contrasts with the American ideals of freedom.  In short, it’s an interesting book albeit not necessarily the one I expected.
Recommended booksThe World They Made Together by Mechal Sobel and Colonial Virginia : a history by Warren M. Billings
Rating: ***1/2

Podcasts of the Week for the Week Ending November 27


Okay, it’s been several weeks since the last Podcast of the Week, and I’ve decided this will be the last installment of this feature.  In the future I may do a monthly roundup or an irregular schedule of posts.
To start of this final post, here are three new podcasts feeds I’m subscribing to:
  • Maeve in America – Irish comedian Maeve Higgins interviews a different immigrant to America in each episode
  • Hub History – a new podcast on one of my favorite topics, Boston history, which has already covered topics ranging from Cotton Mather’s smallpox innoculation and the Great Molasses Flood
  • Stranglers – a 12-part documentary focusing a particularly notorious time in Boston history, the strangler murders of 1962-64
And here are some good episodes from the past motnth or so:
  • Planet Money – Bad Form, Wells Fargo – Career destroying practices for employees involved in the Wells Fargo scandal
  • 99 Percent Invisible – The Shift – the history of baseball’s revolutionary defensive strategy
  • Politically Re-Active – W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu  with guest Roxane Gay  on Anger After the Election
  • Sounds in My Head – Special Post-Election Episode with a playlist of very sad songs

Beer Review: Riverwalk Gnomad


Beer: Gnomad Farmhouse Ale
Brewer: Riverwalk Brewing Co.
Source: Bottle
Rating: **** (8.4 of 10)
Comments: Beer pours out golden with much effervesence and a thick head.  The scent is caramel with a warm, yeasty malt flavor.  The head is persistent while drinking and offers a light mouthfeel.  A nice example of the style.

Beer Review: Baxter Pamola 


Beer: Pamola Session Ale
Brewer: Baxter Brewing Co.
Source: Can
Rating: *** (7.7 of 10)
Comments: A straw colored beer with a thin head, this beer offers the scent of fresh mown hay.  The flavor is sweet with a touch of spice.  It’s a nice balance of subtle flavors in basic ale, good to pair with spicy food.

From the same brewery:

 

Photopost: Thanksgiving Day Parade


Some photo highlights from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade on Central Park West this morning.

Good Things That Happened in 2016


2016 has been a notoriously unfriendly year.

We’ve lost many great people including David Bowie, Harper Lee, Johan Cruyff,  Prince, Muhammad Ali, Elie Wiesel, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, and Gwen Ifill.  Our election was notoriously divisive and sometimes downright tacky and ended up with an electoral college victory for an arrogant bully who enables all sorts of prejudice and hatred.  Add to that the Zika virus outbreak, Brexit, the Orlando massacre, murders by police and murders of police officers, rumors of scary clowns, and other disasters, wars, and terrorist attacks too numerous to name.

So for Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to make a list of some of the good things to happen in 2016:

  • Bernie Sanders becomes a prominent leader of the American Left
  • David Bowie died but not before releasing an excellent final album, Blackstar
  • Boston Public Schools high school students lead the way in protest against crippling budget cuts
  • Wild tiger populations are rebounding
  • Leicester City becomes the first club not in the “big 4” to win the English Premier League in decades
  • Bartolo Colon hits a home run
  • The new Ghostbusters is really good
  • The Juno spacecraft arrives at Jupiter
  • Stranger Things debuts on Netflix
  • David Ortiz’s fantastic final season
  • Unite Here Local 26 goes on strike for food service workers at Harvard, and wins!
  • Cubs finally win the World Series

On a more personal level, I’m grateful for the following things:

  • attended the Harris Hill Ski Jump competition
  • my mother returned to her childhood home in the Bronx, moving into a charming apartment in a lovely neighborhood, and we visited New York often
  • related to the above, we became members of the Wildlife Conservation Society and frequent visitors to the Bronx Zoo
  • Peter’s baseball team scored 18 runs in the last inning when they were down by 14 (they lost the game anyway, but they were so proud)
  • I got an iPad
  • we went to lots of Major League Baseball games at Fenway Park and Citi Field.  Both the Red Sox and the Mets made it to the postseason.
  • we rode the Codzilla speedboat in Boston Harbor and saw hip-hop dancers and fireworks at Christopher Columbus Park
  • Peter and I had a great ride in the Bikes Not Bombs Bike-A-Thon
  • I got my first digital SLR camera
  • Visited Canobie Lake Park three times, and Rye Playland once
  • I lost my keys in a park, but the Boston Park Rangers found them and I was able to retrieve them
  • Both kids started attending the same school and we have one drop off and one pick up!
  • Got to be a history geek with the kids at Old Sturbridge Village and Plimoth Plantation
  • Led 31 Boston By Foot tours, my favorite for a couple of women from Toronto who told me that the first thing they did upon arriving in Boston was going to the Warren Anatomical Museum
  • Processed some big and interesting archival collections at work

Those are some things to be thankful for in 2016.  Let me know what you’re thankful for in the comments.

 

In the meantime, let’s sing along with Arlo Guthrie.

 

Albums of the Month: November 2016


I started working on this post a few weeks ago, set it aside, and in the intervening time one of the artists review straight-up DIED.  I feel terrible guilt that I didn’t get my thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s now-final album up in a timely manner.  Before anything bad happens to any of the other artists, here are my thoughts on five recently released albums you should give a listen to.

Artist: Jenny Hval
Album: Blood Bitch
Release Date: September 30, 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Female Vampire” and “Secret Touch”
Thoughts: Norwegian avant-garde musician Jenny Hval presents this concept album on the theme of blood.  It’s sonicaly rich with complex lyrics about things ranging from vampirism to menstruation
Rating: ***


Artist: Leonard Cohen
Album: You Want It Darker
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Lyrics of Note:

As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
– “Steer Your Way”

Favorite Tracks: “You Want It Darker,” “Treaty,” “Leaving the Table,” and “Steer Your Way”
Thoughts: A beautiful farewell from the singer/songwriter/poet Cohen (although he could have very well gone on to record another brilliant album had he survived).  It seems unprecedented that much of Cohen’s best work came at such an advanced age.  Even if his older songs are much-covered classics, the work on his final albums has some of the best instrumentation, production, and performing.
Rating: ****


Artist: Tanya Tagaq
AlbumRetribution
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Nacreous,” “Aorta,” “Centre,”
Thoughts: The Inuit throat singer’s newest album sees her crossing over into other musical styles, bringing in Tuvan throat singers, collaborating with rapper Shad, and covering Nirvana’s “Rape Me.”  But this isn’t a cozy Putamayo “world music” release from the 1990s, instead it is a vital statement of plight of indigenous peoples and global warming, and a call to political action.
Rating:


Artist: John K. Samson
Album: Winter Wheat
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Select All Delete,” “Oldest Oak at Brookside,” “Alpha Adept,” and “Virtute at Rest”
Thoughts: The lead vocalist of The Weakerthans newest solo project sounds a lot like a Weakerthans recording but stripped down to just the vocals and a few instruments.  The songs navigate technology and nature and addiction and recovery.  It’s a musically sad, but lyrically hopeful recording so worth a deep listen, even if you’re down in the dumps.
Rating: ***1/2


Artist: Agnes Obel
Album: Citzen of Glass
Release Date: 21 October 2016
Favorite Tracks: “Familiar,” “Trojan Horses,” and “Citizens of Glass,”
Lyrics of Note:
Thoughts: Danish-born, Berlin-based artist Agnes Obel’s music reminds me of a lot of things – Phillip Glass’ avant guarde keyboards, Clannad’s layering of vocals and instruments, Joanna Newsom’s vocal stylings, and Led Zeppelin in their most mystical folkiness.
Rating: ***

Turns out this was a very Northern review with three Canadian and two Scandinavian artists.  If there’s a new album you think I should hear and review in December, let me know in the comments.

 

Book Review: How Music Works by John Powell


Author: John Powell
TitleHow music works : the science and psychology of beautiful sounds, from Beethoven to the Beatles and beyond
Publication Info: New York, NY : Little, Brown, 2010.
Summary/Review:

With a lot of humor and avoidance of technical detail, Powell breaks down everything about music including physics, acoustics, decibels, rhythm and melody, and musical scores. Despite the simplicity of the book, I still find myself challenged in remembering all that I learned, but I suspect that this is a good introduction to music for most readers.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Who Was John F. Kennedy by Yona Zeldis McDonough


Author: Yona Zeldis McDonough
TitleWho Was John F. Kennedy
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, c2005.
Summary/Review:

Continuing our way through the “Who Was…?” series with my son.  This book again shows the series’ ability to be age-appropriate, but to also offer honest appraisals of their subjects.  I was particularly impressed by the details of Kennedy’s pre-Presidential life.

Rating: ***