From Stevie, whose wonders never cease

ON POPULAR MUSIC

October 13, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON

IN THE RELATIVELY short time (barely six years) I've worked as a music critic, I've had a few I-must-be-dreaming moments. There was that autumn afternoon in a New York City hotel bar when I laughed long and loud and did some serious dishing with the very real Chaka Khan. The summer before he died suddenly of a heart attack, Johnnie Taylor and I spent an entire afternoon together at his spacious Dallas home. The underrated Southern soul-blues legend played me demos for a new album. Later, we rode around the neighborhood in his shiny new SUV.

But when I met Stevie Wonder about four years ago at a songwriters' award reception in Manhattan, I thought I was going to pass out. My face felt hot; my nerves started jumping. The man grabbed my hand as I introduced myself and I nearly dropped my tape recorder. The stern, mamalike voice in my head said, "Rashod, get it together. You're not a fan now; you're a journalist. You better not say nothin' stupid, 'cause if you do ..."

"Hey, Stevie, how are you doing this evening?" I said, surprised at how easy that came out. He smiled. We talked shortly about some of the contemporary artists he admired, including India.Arie and Raphael Saadiq. Then he was escorted to another room as I stood there, still feeling the warmth of his hand on mine. Stevie! Wonder!

So naturally I was excited when I finally received his new album, A Time to Love, in the mail. Largely because of Stevie's legendary perfectionism, the release date has been pushed back several times in the past year. The CD, his first since 1995's Conversation Peace, appears in stores Tuesday.

Although I have mad love for Stevie's music, I don't approach his new material with lofty, ultimately unrealistic expectations. I'm not expecting another Innervisions or Talking Book or Fulfillingness' First Finale. I'm not even expecting another In Square Circle. Those masterworks are precious moments in time that even Stevie couldn't top if he wanted to.

So to all the nostalgic fans hoping that the man has made another Songs in the Key of Life, just give it up, OK? Instead, you're going to have to settle for the older, sweeter, less adventurous Stevie who still crafts killer grooves and gorgeous melodies. He delivers few musical epiphanies these days, but the man is seldom boring. A Time to Love, which boasts 15 cuts and clocks in at nearly 78 minutes, doesn't stand next to his masterpieces from the mid- '70s. But it is an engaging, if overlong and occasionally self-indulgent, record. (Come to think of it, Songs in the Key of Life, perhaps Stevie's most celebrated album, was overlong and definitely self-indulgent in spots.)

Although the artist's harmonic and melodic gifts are intact, it's Stevie's robust voice that is the true wonder. Even when the lyrics drip a bit too heavily with sap as on "From the Bottom of My Heart" and "Sweetest Somebody I Know," he sounds as vibrant and emotionally invested as he did 30 years ago. There's something eternally youthful about Stevie's voice. Expansive and crystalline, it forcibly, movingly conveys his open-hearted lyrics of universal love. On the new album, the 55-year-old singer-songwriter flexes that marvelous instrument -- soaring to the galaxies on "Moon Blue," a laid back, Quiet Storm number and an album highlight.

On "How Will I Know," a gossamer ballad with a lounge jazz feel, Stevie shares the mike with his daughter, Aisha Morris, a pleasant but indistinctive vocalist. "My Love Is On Fire" is a slick, snappy mid-tempo groove that could easily become a steppers' favorite. "Passionate Raindrops" sounds like a wistful mash-up of 1980's "Rocket Love" and 1985's "Overjoyed."

The slower cuts, especially "True Love," radiate an inviting warmth while the up-tempo numbers feel a bit forced and over-programmed. "So What the Fuss," the first single from A Time to Love, is particularly grating as Stevie rushes through the lyrics. Though "If Your Love Can Not Be Moved," a duet with Kim Burrell, boasts an interesting Indian-inspired beat and a nice bridge, the six-minute song starts to wear out its welcome after three minutes. The same is true for the title track, featuring India.Arie; that number rolls on for an exhausting nine minutes.

A Time to Love could use some trimming. But as it stands, it's not a bad album -- overbearing at times but certainly not lackluster. Even back in the day, Stevie rarely held anything back. When he releases something, he drenches us with masterful melodies and dense lyrics urging us to receive and give love. You may not care for a certain song, but it's hard to ignore the glow of it.

That's all a part of Stevie's magic.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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