"Stevie Wonder's Original Musiquarium I" (Tamla), the singer's new album, is a modified greatest hits collection. The two-record set collects 16 songs from his 1972-'80 albums, plus four newly written and recorded songs. If four songs seem an insufficient dose of Wonder's music, check out "Ji" (Mercury), the debut album by British funkster Junior--Junior Giscombe--one of the few who can write and sing with Wonder's intoxicating melodic gift.
"Musiquarium" is organized by presenting a different aspect of Wonder's music on each of the four sides. Each opens with several old songs and closes with a new song. Side one presents Wonder's angry protest songs, including the classic anthem, "Livin' for the City," and the brand new "Front Line." Wonder assumes the persona of a 34-year-old Viet vet, who's bitter that he stood in the "front line" in the war but now stands "at the back of the line" for jobs. The bitterness is underscored by sharp rock lead guitar from Benjamin Bridges. The anger is telling and the sentiments admirable, but clumsy verse lyrics and a repetitive melody make this the side's weak cut.
Side two is the romantic ballad side, featuring that pop standard, "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," and ending with the new "Ribbon in the Sky." Though the lyrics are greeting-card-schmaltzy, this new song's melody makes grand climbs and reaches surprising, satisfying resolutions. The song works best when Wonder scats slowly but intuitively over his own jazz piano solo. Side three features the big-beat dance numbers. It contains the reggae-influenced "Master Blaster" and this spring's hit single, "That Girl." With its rich mid-tempo melody swells and lulls and its beguiling vocal surges, it belongs in any Wonder anthology.
Side four is the big, jazzy production numbers. It includes the old "I Wish," and the new "Do I Do," both with big horn sections. While many of Wonder's records are one-man-band projects, "Do I Do" features his road band, Wonderlove, and 16 name horn players. They stiffen the rhythm and elaborate the lovely melody into oceanic textures. The song reaches one peak with a trumpet-harmonica duet between Dizzy Gillespie and Wonder, and then another as Wonder improvises vocally over the madly swinging band. Unfortunately the song goes on too long and degenerates into a weak rap routine. With a catalogue as rich as Wonder's, it is hard to fit his best songs on a two-record set, so the compilers went with the best-known songs and thus left out some gems like "As," "A Seed's a Star," "I Believe," "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" and "All I Do."
Many artists have imitated Wonder's sound, but no one has gotten as far inside that sound as Junior. On "Ji," Junior fills up that sound so well with his own special talents that he possesses it. A song such as "Let Me Know" sounds uncannily like Wonder, especially because Junior has a supple voice that can glide through tricky melody maps and smoothly shift from silky crooning to gruff barking. Moreover, Junior has a distinctive phrasing that breaks up ordinary lines into revealing pauses, drawn-out syllables and compressed syllables. Yet, you soon realize that this instantly memorable melody comes from Junior himself and that the dance beat is fatter and funkier than Wonder's.
Junior had a big disco hit in England last fall and in America last winter with "Mama Used to Say." That song kicks off the new album with its unusual accommodation of a rich melody inside its irresistible dance beat. Each song achieves this marriage of contagious danceability and musical versatility. Each song also multiplies melodies that Junior and producer Bob Carter tackle with ever-changing tactics. The songs are backed by an excellent British funk sextet. Carter's synthesizers bear a British New Wave influence, while the pivotal bassist, Keith Wilkinson, sounds as if he had grown up in Motown. Carter proves a superior producer--he brings out glowing bass slides, ringing guitar tones and short horn phrases as contrasting accents to the chunky rhythm section.
Each song bears repeated listening as the pleasure of the foreground melodies and dance beat gives way to the background pleasures of odd harmonies, counter-rhythms and variations. Junior himself holds this ambitious activity together with the undeniable warmth and credibility of his singing. All his lyrics are romantic, and Junior sings every word both with the skill of a nightclub pro and the openness of an adolescent recovering from his first love and hoping to start his second. Junior's "Ji" ranks with Stevie Wonder's "Hotter Than July" and Prince's "Controversy" as the most progressive soul albums of this young decade.