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Friday, February 10, 2012

STEVIE WONDER - TALKING BOOK

Tamla (1972, Oct.)
Original U.S. pressing T319L


Motown
Canadian pressing T319L B5 RS-8106/07

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab (2011)
reissue MOFI 1-009

Rating: 8.0 / A (CAN. Motown)
Rating: 7.7 / A (U.S. Tamla)
Rating: 6.6 / A (MoFi)

Category: Soul / Funk
Format: Vinyl (140 gram LP at 33 1/3 rpm)

Musicians:

  • Produced, Arranged and Written by: Stevie Wonder 
  • Programming, Engineer, Associate Producer: Malcolm Cecil
  • Engineer, Associate Producer: Robert Margouleff
  • Engineered by: Austin Godsey
  • Assistant Engineers: Joan Decola
  • Recorded at Air Studios in London, Electric Lady Studios in New York, Crystal Studios in Los Angeles, and Record Plant in Los Angeles.U.S.A. 
  • Originally Mastered by: George Marino
  • Remastered and Lacquer-Cutted by Paul Stubblebine for Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab, Sebastol, CA, U.S.A. 
  • Pressed at RTI, CA, U.S.A.
  • Cover Design:
  • Photography: Robert Margouleff
  •  

 Stevie Wonder not only distinguishes himself by being one of the rare artist to remain loyal to his debut record label but also nearly fifty years later, the longest signed to the legendary Motown family. In fact, even The Miracles' own Smokey Robinson - named vice president in 1961 - temporarily left the company in the 1990s. Which is all the more astonishing given the fact that just a year before recording Talking Book, when turning twenty-one and as a prior agreement, Motown paid him a million dollars that they held onto while he was minor. Not bad for a birthday present you might think, as long as you ignore the fact that the label owed him 30 million in unpaid royalties.


That's when Wonder founded Taurus Productions and Black Bull Music publishing to assert future control of music and financial rights. Those early years at parent company Tamla and its subsidiary Gordy was a veritable who's who of what was to become the biggest names in (Detroit) soul music in the nineteen-sixties and early-seventies; The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, Junior Walker, Marvin Gaye and of course Little Stevie Wonder as he was known at that time. Of that list - and not in the least discarding the great musical contributions of the remainders - the latter two, stand out as the true pioneer 'rule breakers' from the 'Berry Template'.




Just like Marvin's 1971 groundbreaking What's Going On [Tamla]; Stevie's Where I'm Coming From [Tamla] released within a month the same year, departed from the well-oiled 'Motown machine recipe' and set the stage for what is considered his peak creative period. Starting with Music of My Mind the following year and culminating with Songs in the Key of Life in 1976; the apex of which arguably being 1972's Talking Book or 1973's Innervision [all on Tamla].



Compared to Wonder's poppish soul characterized by his formative recording years, Talking Book explores new grounds in instrumentation such as synthesizer and clavinet; putting a heavier emphasis on funk than previous albums. Also, and like soul innovator Marvin Gaye, he retained more artistic freedom than ever before; being credited as songwriter, producer and playing a great many of the instruments.


In effect it is immediately clear that we are in another universe as far as the Motown Sound is concerned; there is nary a hint of the famous Holland-Dozier-Holland nor Smokey signature. As for his later period; like so many of his contemporaries, the 'creative juices' did not seem to be 'au rendez-vous' so much. While still retaining commercial success in the 1980s, the rich multilayered compositions and musical advances of the previous decade were no longer - the low point being no doubt the perennial wedding favorite "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from - you guessed it - 1984 (there's that year again) and 1982's 'wishy-washy' duet with Paul McCartney, "Ebony and Ivory"; quite ivory indeed when juxtaposed against a song like "Living for the City".

This is the second record under MFSL's 'Silver Label Series' that I am evaluating; the first one being July's KC & The Sunshine Band that impressed me greatly for its many improvements over the original. I was eager to find out if MoFi could produce another winner with Talking Book.


Apart from the silver band at the top, the gatefold jacket-cover remains a near exact replica of the original, minus the bottom left 'TAMLA square' and a hint more emphasis in the reds. The back cover maintains the original's printed lyrics, supplemented by the universal barcode and MoFi logos.


Opening the jacket, the 'sunset picture' along with the usual credits are faithfully reproduced.


Mobile's slightly heavier rigid carton is both reassuring for long time preservation and gladly surprising considering the lower price of this series; no cutting corners packaging wise (some of the competing labels should take note). Inside, the record is housed in their flexible anti-static rice paper 'Original Master Sleeves'. In addition, a folded light carton with twelve album covers taken from the 'Silver Label Series' adorning one side and various products on the flip side, brings further record protection. The standard-weight LP appeared a bit lighter than 150 grams plus seemingly more flexible than the KC & The Sunshine Band of the same series - probably closer to 140 grams; the original vinyl is sturdier and a bit thicker. It is an unfortunate fact that pressing plants will exhibit from time to time, small variants in vinyl weight, strength and surface noise due to so many variants; vinyl pellets, temperature, humidity, release times and stamper quality just to name a few (artistic, technical and environmental aspects all come into play). Pressed at RTI in California; it was shiny and black with a few light visual - almost tangential - scuff marks mainly on Side 2 on the second and third track; these are common enough under good lighting conditions but not that worrisome. As per usual with MoFi, the new label does not try to reproduce the original (in this case the yellow+brown Tamla) but instead is plain black with a top rim of white. The groove spacing is close to the original U.S. Tamla pressing, but in reverse; where the original utilized just over 3 1/8 inches on side A and 3 1/4 inches on side B of width modulation, the MoFi is modulated 3 1/4 on A and 3 1/8 on B, leaving an adequate dead-wax margin. With roughly 21 to 23 min./side, there could be some compromise regarding cutting level versus frequency bandwidth for the chosen speed. The original was mastered and cut by George Marino at The Cutting Room while the MoFi was handled by Paul Stubblebine.

Recorded in 1972 by engineers Joan De Cola and Austin Godsey at four different studios in London, L.A. and New-York. With our man handling more than his fair share of the instruments, we can ascertain with certainty that this was a pure analog muIti-track - 16 track most probably - tape recording and the 'sound fashion' of those early seventies was typically fat groovy warmth plus soft and smooth highs trumping loudness level; quite the opposite of today's 'fashion' and even of the preceding 'Motown Sound' for that matter.


I started the 'spinning shootout' with my original United States Tamla first pressing. The opening notes of "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" was pretty much as I remembered; warm generous bass and low mids but a definite lack of airiness in the top end, making a pleasant but ill-defined soft sound. Singer James Gilstrap enters first on the left followed by Lani Groves on the right before Stevie takes over in the middle as lead vocal. The vocals are 'creamy' with warm palpability and retain a rare dry naturalness; no artificial reverb here. Cymbals are a bit far and curtailed in the mix. Switching to the MoFi, I was surprised and disappointed that the lows were attenuated and the vocals lost the very positive qualities mentioned above. The one minor improvement was a 'lifting of veils' in the higher frequencies, producing better clarity but at the expense of tone; as if the treble details were somehow distracting or intruding on the gestalt of the music. That said on certain systems and with different sound priorities, some audiophiles may prefer this opposite tonal tilt. As seems to be a recurring theme with the 'newer' MoFi LPs, the cutting level registers roughly 4dB lower on the sound meter; so of course levels were re-adjusted between swaps.

"Maybe Your Baby" takes us on a radical departure from the sophisticated suave pop of the prior track. Here things turn grittier with a slow tempo heavy-funk worthy of Sly Stone that did not get the fair amount of airplay that it deserved. Synthesizer maven Robert Margouleff and bassist Malcolm Cecil who had work previously with Stevie on Music of My Mind bring their magic to this awesome cut.


Already working as a duo under the name Tonto's Expanding Head Band, the three would later collaborate on Billy Preston's 1975 album It's My Pleasure [A&M] with ex-backup Motown singer, friend and former wife Syreeta Wright lending voice on one track. Margouleff often served as a bridge between the creations of electro-whiz Robert Moog and adventurous musicians. Their elaborate keyboard programming enabled Wonder to expand the sonic landscape encompassing urban ghetto-soul, P-Funk and electronic sounds; opening up doors for future black musicians to integrate more electronic sounds in their music. The sonic differences between both copies remained pretty much the same, with the original pushing the lower fundamentals of the vocals upfront with a nice warm densely sustain on the electric guitar blending in the mix and more in the background; again everything a bit veiled and muffled. The MoFi was less veiled with the cymbals more pronounced, this widening a bit the soundstage. The vocals pushing more the harmonics, sounded as if higher pitched a bit. Too bad the diminished bottom robbed some of the bass power of the song. Nevertheless this is probably the track to come out the strongest or balanced in sound regarding the MoFi version.

"You and I (We Can Conquer the World)" is the worse sounding track of the album regardless of which pressing; displaying lots of sibilance in the reverb tail of the vocals, close to distortion and a lack of weight on the piano; moreso on the MoFi. Although a hit, music wise it was never my cup of tea. A bit of surface noise could be heard in the right channel but not surprisingly my second-hand original had even more.

With "Tuesday Heartbreak", Stevie returns to form in this lighter funky soul piece. This, along with “Maybe Your baby”, is the high points of side A in terms of original composition, arrangements as well as on sonic terms. Comparisons in sound remained constant and in line with those described in the prior tracks.

"You've got It Bad Girl" closes the first half of the album. It is obvious that the tape suffers from excessive distortion mainly caused by the truly disturbing sibilance and what resembles some flute - though none are mentioned in the credits - like playing. The mix seems almost saturated as if the meters were pegging '+5dB' on the soundboard or the tape heads at the time. Add to that the less favorable 'end of side / inner-groove' handicap pushing twenty-three minutes and you've got yourself a recipe for disaster. On the original, with its shelved treble, the distortion is a bit less obtrusive if you are not in comparative mode but once exposed, it is there alright and hard to ignore.

At this juncture, it seemed evident that both pressings were far from ideal and that - sibilance aside - an 'in-between' solution (as far as tonal balance / equalization is concerned) was still wanting; enter the 'Classic Canadian Compromise'.


I remembered a friend who had a mid-1970s 'indigo' Motown pressing (gatefold with squared maple leaf emblem but pre-barcode [T 319L B5 RS-8106/07]). As luck would have it, while still not perfect, it nevertheless fit the bill for navigating right in the middle between bottom heavy-shelved top and shelved lows-ascending treble. Surprisingly transparent for a Canadian (most probably) second pressing; usually the Canadian counterparts have a bit less top end detail than the U.S. and imports. The cutting level fell in between also and compensated for.


Side B opens with the blockbuster funk classic "Superstition". Originally offered to Jeff Beck who had created the drum beat, Wonder was persuaded by Berry Gordy to make it his own first. The 'Man' may have got it wrong a few times, but there is no doubt he got it right this time and was the best advice he ever gave to his protégé. Reaching number one on the charts, with its instantly recognizable funky clavinet riff along with Margouleff & Cecil`s Moog and Arp sounds, it remains one of the grooviest song ever put to wax.


Towards the coda the tenor and trumpet trade places thanks to 'Mr. Pan Pot' keeping things exciting 'til the last notes. The original has great weight and grunt in the bottom plus lots of presence in the mids conveying a very groovy feel to the song. The 'nasty' Hoener clavinet has good clear bite. Negatively the hi-hat is lacking in overtones which is really a shame. The MoFi lacked quite a bit of weight reducing the groove factor but had more detail in the top end. The Canadian alternative got it almost spot on, with impressive clarity in the treble plus nice hi-hat definition balanced at just the correct level. Only minor caveat was a slight penalty in the bottom bass impact and low mid warmth proximity which couldn't displace the U.S. Tamla.

"Big Brother" takes on another direction with some oriental aspirations.


"Blame It On the Sun", another strong composition, comes out best on the original with very good tonal balance, tremendous lows, creamy vocals and the highs a bit better leveled and detailed than the rest of the album. The Canadian is a close second.

"Lookin' for Another Pure Love" with Jeff Beck on electric guitar, is equally as strong if not more so. Sonic differences between all three pressings remain constant.

The album closes off with the much covered "I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)".

After completing my evaluation I roamed the forums and the web (I never do before to prevent pre-bias influence) to gather added info on the subject. I subsequently found out that Stevie Wonder preciously withholds the two-track Master Tape and there is no way it ever leaves its master. So we cannot be sure of the fidelity of the copy, that mastering engineer Paul Stubblebine had to work with.


Summing up, cautiously recommended only if you don't already own an original Tamla in good condition or have always found it to be shelved and veiled on top. If you feel funky but are hesitating between this reissue and MoFi's KC & The Sunshine Band [MOFI 1-012], wait no longer and go for the latter. It may not carry the artistic recognition that Talking Book has earned throughout the years - not surprising given the 'anti-disco' attitude of the mainstream press - but with no filler-up material, it displays less distortion and a much better - near perfect - tonal balance. Or if you feel more soulful, Marvin's What's Going On [MFSL 1-314] may be better - I have not had the chance to assess theirs, but know the original recording was really excellent. In any case, with their vast selection of music styles, there are plenty other MoFi titles that I would recommend for sound before this one. For the most neutral tonal balance, try to find an early to mid-1970s Canadian Motown pressing. If your tastes cater more to a weighty low-mid palpable creaminess and can tolerate the missing top end harmonics, go for the original United States Tamla first pressing on the second-hand market. Rating them, the original Tamla and Canadian Motown would garner between a 7.5 and 8. The latter sounds like an excellent neutral MOSFET transistor, while the former compares more to a well-played vintage tube with its charms and limits.

The pitfalls of having done mastering and owning a neutrally revealing system is the tendency to second-guess one's peers. There are so many 'what ifs': what if the engineer added a 3dB lift under 80 Hz to retained the weight or tamed down the 5 kHz to 10 kHz octave by half a dB or so to lessen the sibilance and even more important; what if Mobile had had access to the Original Master Recording that resides 'stashed in the Maestro's Vault'? So many questions...

For now, only Stevie may well know the answer while one has to Wonder. ________________________________________________________________

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