Saturday, August 25, 2007

Thinking about music...Stevie Wonder's "Tuesday Heartbreak"

Well, when am I not, thinking about music?

But I was contemplating a recent conversation that touched on Stevie Wonder's later career output. And well, I love some Stevie Wonder, but I think the last album I purchased was Hotter Than July (1980). I couldn't help thinking about that Jack Black line from High Fidelity (2000) about early genius versus later, well, less mind-blowing work.

So, I was thinking about instrumentation today and had tracks from Talking Book and Songs in the Key of Life (1977) on "repeat" and I was giving a deep listen to "Tuesday Heartbreak." Now if you compare a song like that to "I Just Called to Say I Love You," (The Woman in Red Soundtrack, 1984) granted the lyrics on the former are more thoughtful, and definitely even stronger on tracks like "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)" (Talking Book) and "As" (Songs in the Key of Life).

Nonetheless, I think the main difference is Wonder's arrangements. By the time of Talking Book (October 27, 1972) Wonder was self-producing with Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff of Taurus Productions taking on Associate Producer duties specific to engineering and Moog programming. Sound designers and engineers Cecil and Margouleff were the inventors of T.O.N.T.O. (The Original New Timbral Orchestra), a "customized and expanded" Moog modular synthesizer instrument renowned for its warm full sound, and founders of the short lived group Tonto's Expanding Head Band, which released the ground-breaking album Zero Time (out-of-print) by which Wonder was impressed enough to recruit them as engineers; they won a Grammy for their efforts on that second collaboration with Wonder (pictured right, l-r: Cecil and Margouleff circa 1973 with Grammys). They had previously engineered Music of My Mind (March 3, 1972) and went on to engineer Innervisions (1973) and Fullfillingness' First Finale (1974)*). Margouleff also took that famous cover photo. Wonder was an early user of both the Arp and the Moog synthesizers, and his keyboard work takes on parts normally played by guitar and bass, as well as keyboard. These recordings are also notable for their layered arrangements. If the 1960s cult-pop group Left Banke was baroque-pop, this was baroque-funk-R&B, without the strings, and with a layering up of James Brown's highly percussive elements, the edged spare muscularity of Brown's arrangements rounded by the bubbly, warmer sounds of the Moog and Arp, but no less percussive. Additionally, Wonder's drumming certainly is arguably employed more for accentuation in the verse sections of "Tuesday Heartbreak" than time-keeping/pushing the groove. (above left, l-r: Robert Moog, Margouleff, Cecil, and Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and big Moog fan, circa 2000)

It's the bass guitar programming on the Moog, and the percussive guitar funk sound from the Clavinet keyboard that drives the groove. Wonder's vocal is the only thing carrying the melody, all the other instrumental voicings are working as counterpoint and/or harmony. In other words, one of the few times the instrumentals are echoing the same note as Wonder's voice is during the chorus when he sings, "I wanna BE with you..."and then only on "BE," the first note of the measure, which creates a great emphasis notably not on the noun "you," but on the verb "be." The lyric and music are weighting the desired action and, in doing so, the emotion behind it, thus creating a more visceral emotional experience than if the "you" were given similar emphasis. The verses' minimal background vocal arrangement with some obligato vocal and some call-and-response (mostly Wonder) are not arranged as a set pattern, meaning they don't automatically repeat the same arrangement in response to particular lead vocal section. The effect builds subtly to a higher climax, so even though the song has a typical pop song A-B-A-B (verse-chorus-verse-chorus) structure (with a really short break/segue featuring a swirling ascension of different instruments between the verse and chorus and final repetition of the chorus), it has a more complex payoff emotionally for the listener. Much of this Wonder/Cecil & Margouleff achieve by embedding certain instrumentation. Unless you're giving serious study to the song, or naturally have a great ear, you might miss the spoken word macking that Wonder mixes in the background within the same frequency range as the lead vocal on the second verse. That second verse also features a somewhat staccato, funkified call-and-response moment from the background vocals, the response in the prior verse was much more airy-head voice located--longer intonation. (pictured above right, Wonder checking out Hartmann keyboards (manufacturer of the Clavinet) at the 2004 NAMM Conference**)

In this chorus the embedding makes layered use of background voices, particularly Wonder's own voice, the result being an emphasis on sound and color more than the actually lyric (if there is one) or melodic or harmonic structure. On the other hand with the chorus, the background vocals come in with Wonder having Shirley Brewer and and Deniece Williams (credited as "Denise Williams in the liner notes) supply some smooth, full "oo-oo's" mixed center, and somewhat back, while he "hmm's" an ascending then descending line (melisma) mixed more forward and somewhat to the right. Then Brewer and Williams hit these high, gospel-colored (as in jubilee, as in Fisk Jubilee Singers-style of vocal arrangement) , percussive ascending then descending "hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-ooo" notes, while Wonder's voice is doubled "hmm'ing" a descending line immediately afterwards. And during the chorus the cymbals are mixed forward; their decay fills out mid-highs in the sound field.

Midway through the chorus Wonder puts handclaps on the the fourth beat. These handclaps appear periodically throughout the song at different accent points, usually on the fourth beat. Wonder doesn't limit himself to any one instrument to provide accent however, also using Dave Sanborn's alto sax timbre to create focused moments throughout the song. While he credits Sanborn (listed as "Sanborne" in the credits) with the "Alto Solo," the horn part doesn't appear as a "traditional" solo. Undeniably a key element in the song, it's given its own aural space, but through judicious mixing, not through the attenuation of every other instrument as if to announce "and now for our guest player!" Of course, this was before Sanborn was signed to a major label and became a household name, so there wasn't external pressure to do that sort of thing (and back then I think even a "star" would be too intimidated to act much the fool on a Wonder recording date). It's clear that Wonder as producer was involved in the album's mixing from the album credits which list the "Recordists" as Joan DeCola*** and Austin Godsey, and no mixing engineer credits. (Williams pictured left; Sanborn pictured right)

More about T.O.N.T.O. and the Wonder/Cecil & Margouleff collaboration during Wonder's "Classic Era" can be found here

Here's some YouTube video of Wonder seriously jammin' "Superstition" (Talking Book) on Sesame Street, back in the day. A pretty good view of his synthesizer set up, including the Clavinet, is available.

And Wonder playing Yamaha's Motif XS at the Winter 2007's NAMM, where he's a regular attendee. Reportedly Yamaha seduced Wonder away from the T.O.N.T.O. after Fullfillingness' First Finale. It's surprisingly uninspired playing, compared to the subsequent clip where he's videotaped riffing on some of his own classic motifs on an unidentified keyboard by an awestruck fan (who can't resist calling his friend in the middle of taping).

At the Yamaha Demo...

And just playing...

* For Songs in the Key of Life, Wonder worked with with Engineers John Fischbach (whose Ninth Ward-located Piety Street Recording I believe survived Katrina) and Gary Olazabal (who also gets a special credit for "Bass EQ") with Dave Henson credited under "Assistant Engineering," with Assistant Engineer Howie Lindeman (Hit Factory, NY, NY); Assistant Engineers Steve Smith and Rick Smith (Record Plant, Los Angeles, CA) and Assistant Engineer Cris Morris (Record Plant, Sausalito, CA). Yep, those were the days of the big recording studios.

**The International Music Products Association’s name, NAMM, comes from the acronym "National Association of Music Merchants,” their previous name.

***A rare female engineer (especially in the 70s!), DeCola is also listed as the "engineer" on Wonder's Fullfillness' First Finale; and under "remix, engineer [digital transfer]" for John Coltrane's Interstellar Space.


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