Stevie Wonder and Stoney Browder brought some of the sweep and grandeur of big jazz bands to soul radio in the late '70s. By writing smart, expansive arrangements for their own catchy pop tunes, these two keyboardists promised to reconcile the disco-and-funk age with the swing era. But then they seemed to vanish from the scene.
Wonder released his last full album in 1980; Browder released his last album in 1979. After their years as recluses, Wonder and Browder have emerged recently with albums that are pleasant enough but far short of their previous ambitions. It's as if they lost their momentum during their extended separation from their audience.
The sound track for "The Woman in Red" (Motown 6108ML) is not the major album project that Wonder has been promising for several years. This sideline project got done first, however, because it carried the imposed deadline of coming out with the Gene Wilder movie.
Wilder's film about middle-aged romantic fantasy plugged right into Wonder's weakness for mushy love cliche's and lazy ballads. There's plenty of both here. Fortunately, his melodies always take the path less traveled, and they're delivered by the perfect romantic fantasy voices of Wonder and Dionne Warwick.
A perfect example of the album's virtues and flaws is the No. 1 single, "I Just Called to Say I Love You." The melody is irresistible; you'll be hearing it at wedding receptions and proms for years, but never with a smoother, warmer vocal and synth arrangement than Wonder provides. Yet the song can be completely summed up in its already trite title.
Wonder has never been an especially graceful wordsmith, but lines like "The wings of love can send us off to an ever splendor unknown to all in our time" are indigestible. If Warwick's solo, "Moments Aren't Moments," reduces love to ungraspable abstractions, Wonder's "Don't Drive Drunk" reduces protest to the lowest common denominator.
The album's two best tracks by far are the duets between Wonder and Warwick. For one thing, bassist Nathan Watts and drummer James Allen take over from one-man-band Wonder and give the rhythm a snap and crackle it lacks elsewhere. The melodies constantly wander off in new, fruitful directions, and Wonder and Warwick pass the lead vocal back and forth with seamless timing and full harmonies on the tags.
Written as dialogues between troubled lovers, the lyrics get down to the specifics of one person talking to another. "It's You" is filled with the wistful regret of would-be lovers who wish they had waited for each other. "Weakness" is a mutual confession by two lovers whose thoughts have strayed. Wonder seems to have been inspired by the challenge of working with Warwick; it's too bad he couldn't have found more challenges on this album.
Stony Browder has revived Dr. Buzzard's Savannah Band for his first album project in five years, "Calling All Beatniks" (Passport PB 6031). While Browder's past work was rooted in '40s swing, this album is rooted in '50s rock -- doo-wop, rockabilly, girl groups and New Orleans R & B. Browder's detached cool gives this music of his childhood enough perspective that one can enjoy the styles and impulses of the period without surrendering to the naivete'. Browder's tasty new melodies and off-the-wall arrangements make his songs much more than mere revivals.
"Missing on Highway 33," for example, mixes girl group chants, rockabilly guitar and Brill Building strings into an exhilarating extravaganza. It helps that Browder's melody is instantly memorable and that Cory Daye delivers the key line, "I don't want to go home tonight without you," with the right measure of innocence and experience. She makes "Forever" a classic teen angel ballad, pouring her heart through Browder's yearning melody and framing string charts. "Pretty Baby" is an intoxicating swirl of doo-wop syllables, yakety-yak sax and rushed beat.
Two things mar Browder's aural inventiveness, however: The record suffers from low fidelity and the lyrics don't stand up to the music. In sharp contrast to the sheen of Browder's past records, this one has the heavy echo and tinny sound of a demo tape.
On the first three Dr. Buzzard albums, Browder's younger brother, August Darnell, supplied lyrics that were as smart and subtle as the music. On this new album, Signey Anne replaces the departed Darnell, but doesn't have the wit or command of imagery to fill his absence. The songs seem a lot emptier for the change.