Songs in the Key of Life (Classic Album Dissection) & Reviews of Beck and The Killers

Stevie Wonder's album Songs in the Key of Life recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. This week Jim and Greg will conduct a "Classic Album Dissection" on the landmark record and talk to some of the people who helped make it happen. Plus, tune in for reviews of the latest releases from Beck and The Killers.

Songs in the Key of Life
Download Subscribe via iTunes

Music News

The first item in the news is an update on a story Sound Opinions has been covering for some time. In 2003, a massive fire started during a Great White show in Rhode Island, killing 100 people. The criminal case against Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the club owners, just ended last week. Jeffrey was sentenced to 100 counts of manslaughter in a plea agreement. It's hard to say whether or not these two men were guilty of manslaughter, or merely stupidity (for installing flammable foam and then allowing a band to set off pyrotechnics). Either way, the sentence is providing little solace to the victims' families. Great White, however, seems to be moving on.

Songs in the Key of Life

Songs In the Key of Life

Every so often, Jim and Greg like to get all professorial on us and dissect a classic rock album. Stevie Wonder's 1976 album Songs in the Key of Life turns 30 this week, so what a perfect opportunity to delve into the making of the record and why it still means so much to so many people. The best way to kick off a dissection is with a sampling of Wonder's music. Of course, Songs in the Key of Life was released as a two-LP set with a bonus EP for a total of 21 songs. We couldn't squeeze 'em all into this two-minute montage, but here is what you do get to hear:

  • "Sir Duke"
  • "Knocks Me Off My Feet"
  • "Another Star"
  • "Summer Soft"
  • "Love's in Need of Love Today"
  • "I Wish"

One of the reasons Songs in the Key of Life stands out so radically in Wonder's catalog is that it was such a massive undertaking. Having had huge success with earlier albums, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness First Finale, Motown gave Wonder the freedom to stretch out -- for two years, in fact. Jim and Greg speak to two men involved with the recording. The first is keyboardist Greg Phillinganes. Wonder himself is an amazing keyboardist, but Phillinganes explains that the songwriter liked the idea of having some fresh blood in the band. And you couldn't get much fresher than Phillinganes; he was only 18 when he signed on, making this session his first job.

John Fischbach, the second voice we hear from, was one of two engineers recording the session. Fischbach explains that of the many artists he has worked with in the studio, no one compares to Stevie Wonder. He says Wonder was the consummate professional and highly prolific, but also had rather atypical work habits... like calling in his musicians in the middle of the night. One such late night session resulted in the classic "I Wish."

To cap off this album dissection, both Jim and Greg pick one signature track from Songs in the Key of Life. Jim's pick is "Pastime Paradise." Many listeners will recognize the instrumental as the basis for Coolio's 1995 hit "Gangsta’s Paradise," but the original far surpasses that soundtrack song. Jim explains that this Stevie Wonder album can be a bit too sweet for his punk rock tastes, but "Pastime Paradise" is reminiscent of the funkier, more political songs Wonder previously released such as "Living For the City" and "Superstition." He says Wonder is calling out for the listener to take action against a list of woes -- "Dissipation, race relations, segregation..." Ultimately, though, the song is brought to an upbeat, optimistic point that matches the attitude of the rest of the record.

Greg's pick is the anthemic track "As." One of the important things to note about the recording of Songs in the Key of Life is the emphasis Wonder put on having a band and a band-like atmosphere. Certainly, as we heard from Greg Phillinganes and John Fischbach, Wonder could play almost any instrument himself, but he wanted guests to join him and bring life to the music. "As" was definitely recorded live, and the highlight of the song for Greg is Herbie Hancock's Rhodes piano part. According to Greg, Hancock "dirties" up his playing, making way for Stevie (and an overdub of multiple Stevies) to come in with huge gospel vocals. The result is an epic love song fitting an epic album.

The Information Beck

The Information (Bonus Video Version)

Beck released his ninth album this week, and boy, do we feel old. The L.A. rocker is also feeling more mature now that he is a married man and a father, but he's still up to his old cutting and pasting, genre-hopping ways. On The Information, Beck Hansen teams up with longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich to pump the album up with a hodgepodge of samples and sounds. For an extra psychedelic touch, the final track is a spacey outro read by author Dave Eggers and director Spike Jonze. Greg is happy that Beck isn't repeating himself like he did on 2005's Guero; he's experimenting with sounds in really inventive ways. But, Greg explains that the hooks and melodies are lacking on the second half of the record. He recommends that fans cut and paste to make their own album, and he gives The Information a Burn It. Jim, however, doesn't think that Beck has ever been better than he is on the good moments of The Information. He recommends fans Buy It.

00:53:43 Review: The Killers

Sam's Town

The final album up for review is Sam’s Town by Las Vegas  pop group The Killers. We at Sound Opinions H.Q. must admit that we were highly entertained by Jim and Greg's summation of their latest effort. To quote Jim: "I despise this album with a hatred that I rarely have felt for anyone or anything." We hardly need to hear anymore, but we're happy to. Both he and Greg understand that The Killers have always been about ripping off '80s  New Wave and pop music, but neither can comprehend why they are now throwing bombastic, monster ballads into the mix. Lead singer Brandon Flowers manages to combine the over-singing styles of both Robert Smith and Bruce Springsteen. Greg blames producers Alan Moulder and Flood for simply not knowing better (though the two are also responsible for My Bloody Valentine's almost-perfect record Loveless). Sam’s Town is a huge Trash It from both critics.

Dear Listeners,

For more than 15 years, Sound Opinions was a production of WBEZ, Chicago's public radio station. Now that the show is independent, we're inviting you to join the band and lend a hand! We need your support more than ever because now we have to do all the behind-the-scenes work that WBEZ handled before (like buying insurance and paying for podcast hosting, ugh). Plus, we have some exciting ideas we'd like to try now that there's no one to tell us no!