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September 24, 1997

Firewalker

Stevie WonderStevie Wonder, Song Review: A Greatest Hits Collection (Motown 1997) - Since signing with Motown more than 35 years ago as Little Stevie Wonder, Steveland Morris (his real name) has become one of the titans of American rhythm and blues. Song Review is a welcome retrospective from this enormously talented artist.

Though Stevie Wonder's output has slowed since his heyday in the 60's and 70's, his influence and reputation remain enormous. Wonder took home 15 Grammys between 1973 and 1976, and remains the only artist to have won Album of the Year for three albums in succession. Moreover, Wonder is a skilled musician: while his sweet voice comes first to mind, Stevie is also a talented keyboardist, drummer and harmonica player.

The two discs on Song Review showcase prime Wonder, including "My Cherie Amour," "Sir Duke," and "Superstition." Also included is "Uptight (Everything's Alright)" and "Boogie On Reggae Woman."

Disc two features songs from soundtracks from such films as The Woman in Red ("Love Light in Flight"), Adventures of Pinocchio ("Love Light in Flight") and a terrific cover of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" (from the 1996 Spike Lee film, "Get on the Bus").

But listen to "I Just Called to Say I Love You" to hear the master at work. With its intricate lyrics and impeccable vocal delivery, "I Just Called to Say I Love You" is one of the finest pop songs from the last 25 years.

Undecided? Give "I Just Called to Say I Love You" a listen. Stevie Wonder is a giant, and Song Review should be heard by young and old.

J.J. CaleJ.J. Cale, Any Way the Wind Blows, The Anthology (Mercury 1997) - Any Way the Wind Blows is a long overdue double-disc collection from J.J. Cale, the man who pioneered the laid-back Tulsa sound (along with fellow Oklahoman, Leon Russell).

With long-time engineer Audie Ashworth, Cale perfected the smooth, blues-rock sound that highlights his impeccable guitar playing and studio technique. Indeed, as Ashworth notes, "The soloing instruments and the vocal just barely rise out of the bed and never stand apart from it."

Though he's recorded just 11 albums during a 25-year career, Cale's songs have enjoyed wide-spread fame in the hands of others, included Lynryd Skynrd's cover of "Call Me the Breeze" and Eric Clapton's rocking versions of "Cocaine" and "After Midnight."

Cale's classic sound is reflected on the 50 tracks on this set (including six unreleased songs), such as "Cajun Moon," "Thirteen Days," "Downtown L.A.," and "Sensitive Kind" (with its lovely string backing).

Adds Ashworth, "Cale always wanted the voice mixed down. He was always pulling back the fade around the vocal. He said it made you want to lean into the music, instead of leaning back from it. It would pull people in. He was an engineer and he came with chops. He had definite ideas about mixes."

One of my favorite tracks on this collection is "Woke Up This Morning," an unreleased song from the 1973 Okie sessions. With its great stereo mix of guitars, "Woke Up This Morning" shows Cale at his prime.

My one knock about this album is its packaging. Oh, I confess that the liner notes are helpful. But the album features only current pictures of Cale, nothing from earlier in his career, when he was the enigmatic studio player. (In later years, Cale has performed more live shows.)

And the liner notes say nothing about the band members Cale has played with during the years, including long-time sideman, Christine Lakeland.

Now, I'm a long-time J.J. Cale fan. And Any Way the Wind Blows was a perfect opportunity to fill some of the gaps in Cale's personal life. But they're not here. Instead, all we get is the music. Which remains a treat onto itself. For a true stylistic pioneer, check out J.J. Cale.

Rickie Lee JonesRickie Lee Jones, Ghostyhead (Reprise 1997) - Ghostyhead is the first studio release from Rickie Lee Jones since 1993's Traffic From Paradise (a solid release). Jones' work has become more experimental following her return to Reprise. And Ghostyhead takes her interest in hip hop and alternative to a far degree.

Jones finds herself long removed from her early jazz-tinged hits, such as "Chuck E's In Love" (1978). Most of Ghostyhead is hard to absorb. But the single, "Firewalker," is a hot number about surviving the abuses of life.

Says Rickie, "I had been hearing a lot of interesting music and some inspirational texts from hip-hop, and was attracted by the way tension is built with subdued drum mixes. That was a starting point in creating Ghostyhead."

It's hard to recommend buying an album just because of one single. But "Firewalker" comes close: as Rickie says, it has great tension. If this song makes it to the radio, Ghostyhead has a chance.

-- Randy Krbechek

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