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Talking Book Revisited

Talking Book, a review of the cover album by Macy Gray (429 Records, $15.99)

It has often been said (and frequently on the TV show American Idol) that Stevie Wonder’s songs seem deceptively simple, yet they are actually complex and difficult to sing.   Thus, it may seem odd that Macy Gary, with her raspy voice and somewhat narrow range, has elected to not only cover a Stevie Wonder song, but an entire album of Stevie Wonder.   Talking Book – the first of her albums that I’ve listened to – is a re-working of Wonder’s classic 1972 release, and Gray covers all 10 of the original tracks in order.

Surprising though it may be, the results show that Gray’s judgment is just fine and she generally adds some energy and unique flavors to Wonder’s sometimes understated original versions.   (In college, I often listened to Talking Book and felt it was filled with great songs.   But his recordings seemed like preliminary, unfinished versions.)

“You Are the Sunshine of My Life” now comes off as nice and breezy and jazzy, with a few Brasil ’66 touches.   It would be the perfect song for a Sunday drive in a top-down convertible in southern California.

With “You and I (We Can Conquer the World),” Gray adds a sense of joy and hopefulness to the romantic tome.   “Blame It on the Sun,” one of Wonder’s almost-lost classics, is now brought back to life.   The sorrow for a love, once here, now gone, lies just on the edge of Macy’s voice.   “Tuesday Heartbreak” sounds like a track from a romantic movie soundtrack (hint, hint).   And the essential song, “Superstition,” is now spooky and moody, but awfully nice.   Gray presents the listener with a seemingly daydreamed version of Stevie Wonder’s simply great original.

“Big Brother” is more upbeat than the original recording.   In a word, it’s sweet.   Three of the songs, “Maybe Your Baby,” “You’ve Got It Bad Girl,” and “Lookin’ for Another Love,” are perhaps too true, too close to the original versions, but with Stevie that’s not such a bad thing.   And Talking Book closes on the bright spot “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever).”   Here Wonder’s romantic anthem is presented in an arrangement that makes it sound as if two songs were merged into a medley.   A sense of joyfulness returns with traces of Johnny Nash-style sound (“I Can See Clearly Now”) heard in the background.

As a concept, attempting to recreate (and perhaps improve upon) one of Wonder’s better albums seemed far from promising.   It was, after all, forty years ago that the vinyl album arrived in record stores.   But Macy Gray holds her own and, strangely enough, her world-weary voice presents just the opposite message – that she loves life and the music of Stevie Wonder.

I have the feeling that Stevie Wonder will be quite pleased with this audio valentine; something that may also be true for a number of music purchasers.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Stevie Wonder’s album Talking Book was released on October 28, 1972.   Macy Gray’s cover version was released on October 30, 2012.   A review copy was provided by a publicist.

This review originally appeared on the Blogcritics Music site:  http://blogcritics.org/music/article/music-review-macy-gray-talking-book/ .

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Photographs and Memories

I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock (Da Capo, $25.00, 307 pages)

In I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story, the wife of the late singer-songwriter has put together a moving, direct, and fully engaging biography.   The 300 pages seem to fly by and Ingrid Croce – assisted by her second husband Jimmy Rock – has done something that most musician biographers fail to do.   She uses the lyrics to 33 Jim Croce songs to demonstrate how the events in Croce’s life directly shaped his music.

Jim Croce knew individuals named Leroy Brown, Big Jim Walker and Willie McCoy; they were not just figments of a wild imagination.   His ballads and love songs were usually based on the often contentious relationship between himself and Ingrid.   One story told by Ingrid reads like a scene out of film…  Jim and Ingrid have a major dispute, and Jim walks away leaving her sobbing in the bedroom.   A couple of hours later, by way of apology, he returns to sing her a song he has just written – I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.

Ingrid does not pull any punches about Jim’s flaws.   He had a lot of anger (much of it having to do with his parent’s insistence that he not “waste” his college education on a music career), abused prescription medication, and was often unfaithful… However, her love for him as a person shines through on every page of this sometimes emotional work.

One of the shocks for the reader is finding out that while Croce made millions of dollars for his record company, he never saw any of it during his short life of 30 years.   Near the end of his life, he had no more than $40 in his pocket, saved out of a weekly travel per diem of just $200.   It took years and decades of litigation for Ingrid to receive what was due.

“I know he will be with me forever.”

It was shortly before his death in an airplane crash that Croce appeared to be coming apart at the seams.   (A psychic had earlier told him that his son would be raised with only one parent.)   He wrote a letter of love and regrets to Ingrid:  “I know that I haven’t been very nice to you for some time…  I know that you see me for what I am…”   It was a letter that she was to receive after his death.

Croce also told Ingrid in the letter of his plan to separate himself from life on the road and rededicate himself to his wife and toddler son:  “…I want to be the oldest man around, a man with a face full of wrinkles and lots of wisdom.   Give a kiss to my little man and tell him Daddy loves him.   Remember, it’s the first sixty years that count and I’ve got thirty to go.   I love you.”

A long life was not to be, but we have Jim Croce’s amazing music to remember him by.   We now also have this loving remembrance from a strong, but still somewhat heartbroken, woman.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.  The Foreward to I Got a Name was written by Arlo Guthrie.

Note:  The song I Got a Name, featured so well in the film Invincible (set in Jim Croce’s hometown of Philadelphia), was the one song sung by Croce that he did not write.

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I’m Down

You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup by Peter Doggett (Harper, 400 pages, $24.99)

“We were four guys in a band, that’s all.”   John Lennon

Rock ‘n roll writer Doggett provides the reader with a Magical Misery Tour in this inexplicable rehashing of the Beatles story, especially its sad ending (Hey Jude).   Now really, what’s the point of retelling a story that’s already been told in at least 75 other versions, and by the Beatles themselves in Anthology?   Well intended or not, Doggett appears to want to make the point that these were four not really very nice young men; except for the fact that the author is clearly partial to The Legend of John Lennon.

And yet even Mr. Lennon comes off as a crass ruffian in this account.   For example, here is Lennon talking about the band members’ treatment of George Harrison:  “It’s only this year that (George) has realized who he is.   And all the f—— s–t we’ve done to him.”   Positively charming.

John Lennon, however, is treated with virtual kid gloves compared to Doggett’s agenda-driven need to attack Sir Paul McCartney (probably the most commercially successful musician of our lifetime), George Harrison (who wrote what Frank Sinatra called the most beautiful love song of the last century), and Ringo Starr (whose upbeat personality and drumming literally bound the band together).   It is all very, very tiresome.

The point of this exercise is further called into question when one realizes that there’s nothing in this account that one has not read about before.   Even if you’ve read no more than two or three or a handful of books about the Beatles’ storied if marred career, you’ll be bored by the same old stories here.   The author seems to admit as such as he often quotes multiple earlier accounts of the same material.   For example, when he writes about the evil manager Allen Klein he quotes six other sources before providing his own perspective.   Yawn.

There are far better alternatives out there.   If you want to read a true story of a highly talented band’s sad demise consider reading the excellent account, Without You: The Tragic Story of Badfinger by Peter Matovia about Badfinger, the Beatles’ alter-egos band (sometimes referred to as The Junior Beatles).   Each of the four members of Badfinger worked with each of the Beatles at some point – and each of them looked like one of the Beatles – and two of their members died by their own hand.

If you wish to read an account of a band that will succeed in making you hate all of the band members, there’s Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival by Hank Berdowitz.   After reading this unofficial history, I lost my aural appetite for listening to the music of John Fogerty and/or CCR.

One final advisory, and it’s an appropriate one.   I recently discussed this book with a music-loving friend and he asked me what the complete title of the book was.   When I told him that it was supposedly about the Beatles “after the breakup,” he wisely responded:  “Well, after they broke up they weren’t the Beatles anymore, were they?”   No, and it’s a point well taken.   We stand adjourned.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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