100 Essential CDs – Number 58– Will Young – The Hits

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The Hits – Will Young (19 2009)
UK Chart Position – 7

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It might seem odd to those of you who have been following my Essential CD recommendations that this particular artist has three albums within the listing putting him on a par with some real Titans of popular music when he can be considered as just  a singer coming from a TV talent show who hasn’t so far achieved the worldwide success of some who followed this route and doesn’t possess the big voice, big image or formidable creative talent that those who appear more than once on my Essential CD recommendations tend to have. So, the question may very well be: Why do I like Will Young so much to feature three of his albums on my list?
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First and foremost it’s the voice which has a warmth and sincerity which makes every listen an enjoyable experience. It’s also his unwillingness to compromise in an industry full of compromises. I believe both in his music and his belief in it. He chose a route to stardom which could have placed him very much into a pop puppet role but he has managed to forge his own identity in a way in which others that have come after him have failed to consistently do. As much as his music, however, it is what Will Young stands for and his decision to come out at the height of his fame within a market which was aimed towards young girls who would consume his music with the hope that one day they could be Mrs Will Young.

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It’s easy to forget, now that the world has moved on as much as it has because of people like Will what a decision this was. It happened right at the start of his career when his debut single “Evergreen” was at the top of the charts with an interview given to the News Of The World. This kind of revelation had largely been to this point as a result of “outing” by the press who couldn’t help but resort to sniping and bringing in “gay shame” and “twilight worlds” and “double lives” From the same section of the pop industry Boyzone member Stephen Gateley had largely been coerced to come out as the story was going to be run by the tabloid press anyway, and he had the other band members as support rather than being a solo artist. Will’s response was refreshing, telling a major newspaper not known for its tolerance of alternative lifestyles; “For me it’s normal and nothing to be ashamed about. I’m gay and I’m comfortable with that. I really don’t know what the fuss is about.” And with this statement the world shifted a little bit.

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The BBC News website had a forum as to whether readers thought this announcement would affect Will’s career. It makes interesting reading 17 years on. Just a couple of snippets; Rachel from the UK said “Keep buying his records everyone; let’s keep him at number 1 because he certainly is!!” Johnny G from Leicestershire made an attempt at a prophecy “Now he’s had his number one I give him precisely three more weeks of fame before his second follow-up single fails to make the top 40 and he is forgotten forever.” Erik gave a viewpoint from South Africa “Hello people wake up! Grow up and get with it. Reading some peoples comments on issues like that makes me often wonder, with what people really concern themselves.” Julia saw herself as a representative for the “young disappointed female fans” which are mentioned frequently with her comment; “Girls buy all the records and girls don’t fancy gay men. Boy George was an exception just because we liked his makeup”. (I love that one!) There are the inevitable “I’m not homophobic but….” This was a big comment board and the gist of it was that people didn’t think it mattered one way or another which must have been an eye-opener for the popular press who certainly at that point considered it did matter and also the record industry itself who was all for keeping gay artists in the closet in case it damaged their sales. There were more voluntary revelations rather than forced outings in the years to come.  Even the more conservative America where it seemed to matter a great deal caught up when a decade after Will’s announcement Adam Lambert, best known here as some-time front-man for Queen became the first out gay artist to top the US album charts.  Now, at long last, within mainstream pop music at least, we seem to be at the point that it doesn’t matter and recording artists are free to make statements regarding their sexuality without the media furore it would have traditionally caused and I think we have Will Young in the UK to thank for this.

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Not everything has been golden for Will, he has made some decisions which were a little off, most particularly his decision to do “Strictly Come Dancing” and then pulling out after what seemed like a hissy fit over comments made by Head Judge Len Goodman, the circumstances of which as reported by the popular press did make him seem that he just wasn’t going to play if he wasn’t going to win. Not all his acting roles have made the impression anticipated, although he certainly won critical plaudits for a role which seems perfect for him in stage productions of “Cabaret” playing the part made famous in the movie by Joel Gray.

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As a vocalist he has provided me with enough joy that he deserves a greatest hits package on my Essential CD listing alongside his first two studio albums “From Now On” and “Friday’s Child”. I have gone for his first hits compilation from 2009 released after his first four studio albums and which reached number 7 in the UK charts. I probably could have just as easily gone for the later 2013 “The Essential” which reached number 15  but I don’t own that one. That was a parting of the ways compilation with his record label. “The Hits” is better for me in that it is a mid-career retrospective. It says things have been good for the past seven years but there is still good stuff to come.

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Obviously there is going to be an overlap with the first two albums which had been rich in hits so I’m largely discounting the first six tracks which I have dealt with elsewhere. That still leaves us with six tracks spread evenly between “Keep On” and 2008’s “Let It Go” together with the hit collection staple, the two new bonus tracks one of which was released as a single. That track “Hopes And Fears” became his least successful single to date and did not trouble the UK Top 40.  It isn’t exactly vintage Young written by two members of Phantom Limb who supported him on tour.  The other original track “If It Hadn’t Been For Love” which has Will in his tender, vulnerable mood and has a great opening line “Romeo would still be breathing/If it hadn’t been for love“.  Obviously it was decreed that a more uptempo single was a stronger choice to launch this album, but for me this is the better of the two tracks.

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There are some notable omissions on this album.  It seems strange that someone would put out a Hits compilation and not include songs which reached number 1, but that probably would have  given an undue bias to the earlier stages of his career so on this album there is no “Long and Winding Road” his chart-topping duet with Gareth Gates nor one side of the multi-million selling debut double A-sided single, the very likeable “Anything Is Possible” .  His 2002 number 2 double A-sided single is also represented by one track the stronger “You And I” rather than “Don’t Let Me Down”.

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Studio album number three “Keep On” kicks off with perhaps his rockiest track to date 2005’s “Switch It On” which got to number 5 which showed his willingness to diversify but it is a little one-dimensional to me, despite some good rhythm work.  I feel more at home with the other tracks chosen from this album the deliciously tender “All Time Love” which as a single got him back into the Top 3 for the last time to date.  A song rich in melody with a convincing performance could still charm the British singles buying audience in 2006.  Just as good is “Who Am I” which once again brings back the songwriting skills of Eg White who wrote his best track “Leave Right Now”.  This is written in collaboration with singer/songwriter Lucie Silvas, an under-rated performer in her own right.  As the third single release from this album it perhaps was too much to expect this to be a vast hit but it actually became the first Will Young single not to make the Top 10 when it stalled at number 11 but that is certainly not a reflection of the quality of the track.

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2008’s “Let It Go” has three tracks selected for this album the mid-tempo gem that is “Changes” which boasts a great build into the chorus and is full of a stirring optimism with a great vocal performance.  It was the hit track of the album and reached number 10 as the lead single. I really don’t know what happened with the other two single releases from this album as they both underachieved with “Grace” getting a number 33 placing and the title track missing out on the Top 40 for the first time in his career.

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Following the release of this album fans responded very positively a couple of years later when 2011’s “Echoes” gave him his third number 1 album despite not being as strong as what had gone before.  This feat was achieved again with his latest album “85 Percent Proof”  released on the Island label.

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And just this week the announcement was made that Will was back with a new single, with another of his top  quality stylish videos which have been so much a part of his career, once again not one to shy away from the controversial Will adopts a series of disguises, a sailor, a biker, a businessman which might make it sound like a twenty-first century Village People but it’s not tacky even though within each of these disguises he strips!  The single “All The Songs” will be his first release on the Cooking Vinyl label and will be followed by album number 7 “Lexicon” due in June which should I imagine see him back in the upper reaches  of the charts.  In the meantime he has been involved in an impressive podcast, which actually got me listening to podcasts, “Homosapien” which he presents with Chris Sweeney.  Not bad for a boy from a talent show who many predicted would be a five minute wonder, eh?

 

The Hits is currently available from Amazon in the UK for£2.75 and used from £0.20.  In the US Amazon have it for $11.98 and used from $1.08.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.

 

 

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100 Essential Books – Things In Jars – Jess Kidd (Canongate 2019)

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I have read both of Jess Kidd’s previous novels and I was delighted to interview her for NB issue #90 following the publication of her debut. It was this book “Himself” (2016) that I expressed a slight preference for – a novel set in 1970s Ireland which absolutely fizzled throughout although both books have been very strong. “The Hoarder” (2018) had a modern West London setting and like its predecessor combined a good mystery with vibrant language, colourful characterisation and a supernatural element.

All of these factors are present in her third novel, with its setting always of particular interest to me, Victorian England, yet it is not just for this reason that I think that Jess Kidd has written her best novel to date and all that potential she has shown up until now has come into fruition with this hugely entertaining novel.

Like all of Kidd’s main characters to date Bridie Devine can see ghosts but here it’s just one, a half-naked ex-boxer she encounters in a churchyard who remembers her from her past. This supernatural touch is something which obviously means a lot to the author and I felt in “The Hoarder” it did not work as well as it had in “Himself” but the pugilist Ruby is a great character and becomes Bridie’s sidekick on some private detective work.

A child has been kidnapped from a country house in Sussex but it is soon apparent that this is no ordinary child and a gallery of rogues, richly-drawn characterisations worthy of the best of Dickens, seem to be involved in her disappearance. Bridie enlists the help of her seven-foot maid Cora, the spectral Ruby and crossing-sweeper Jem to locate the child.

I do read quite a few of these gutsy Victorian set novels and I’m aware that when they are done well they are likely to feature in my end of year Top 10. The actual case within  the novel recalled for me another female amateur detective Heloise Chancey in MJ Tjia’s series of novels but here with greater depth and the sheer vivacity of the language reminded me of Michel Faber’s “The Crimson Petal And The White” and (although set in late eighteenth century London) within its themes of “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” by Imogen Hermes Gower- both great favourites of mine, but this novel certainly has a life of its own.

I particularly like it when the history of a historical novel is incorporated seamlessly. Here we have the Victorian love of the unusual and freakish and the developments in medicine which attracted the honourable and the disreputable sitting beautifully in with what becomes a gripping mystery peopled with characters about whom I wanted to know so much more. I hope this novel will be the making of Jess Kidd and will get readers discovering both her other publications. The effervescence of her writing will stay with me for some time.

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Things In Jars is published in hardback by Canongate on April 4th 2019. Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 54– Will Young – Friday’s Child

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Friday’s Child – Will Young (19 2003)

UK Chart Position – 1

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Just over a year on from his essential debut album “From Now On” Will Young was back with an album that was every bit as good.  Once again it ascended to the very summit of the charts and hung around for almost a year.  Single-wise it spawned three Top 5 tracks including his fourth (and to date his last) number 1 with perhaps his best ever recording.

 Although at this time he was still on Simon Fuller’s record label the boy had certainly grown up.  Success had given Will a voice and more independence to do what he wanted and this showed as musically this is a more coherent piece than the debut.  There was a new gang on board with Will getting writing credits on 6 of the 11 tracks.  There were a team of producers behind Stephen Lipson, a long-standing established producer who had worked alongside Trevor Horn for years at ZTT records.  Lipson worked either individually or part of a team for 8 of the 11 songs here.

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Producer Stephen Lipson at the desk

 The album kicks off with its only cover version.  To this point Will had followed the commercial popstars 90’s/00’s trajectory of recording a number of cover versions (this seems to have faded nowadays.  Who needs covers  with the originals so readily available on streaming services?)  To this point he had already covered Westlife, Bobby Darin, The Doors and The Beatles but here it is only “Love The One You’re With” a Stephen Stills song which makes the grade.  The original had just scraped the UK Top 40 in 1971 (US#14).  Nine years before the release of this album Luther Vandross had also led his album of covers “Songs” with the track and got to number 31 in the chart- the tune’s highest UK placing despite being an acknowledged radio classic.  Will’s version is pacy with a big sound and a good background arrangement and features one of his trademarks, the extended bended note (there’s probably a technical term for this).  It’s a good start to the album – probably with the tracks on display here it ends up in the middle of the pack for me somewhat but it is performed enthusiastically and both his and Luther’s version are worth a listen, with I suspect Vandross having the edge.

 

Stephen Stills and Luther Vandross also loved the one you’re with

 “Your Game” is a stronger track and up there with his best.  It reached number 3 as the second single from the album helped by a very memorable video.  Like the last track it is the interplay between Will and the Gospel Choir Metro Voices which provides a highlight.  I love the fullness of this track written by Will and co-producer Blair MacKichan with Tayo Onilo-Ere.  It gave Will a Brit Award for Best British Single of 2005.  “Stronger” is a much more understated affair written by Steve Lipson and Karen Poole, the daughter of ex-Tremeloes Brian Poole and herself one half of Alisha’s Attic who had 8 Top 40 UK hits between 1996 and 2001. 

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Alisha’s Attic

“Leave Right Now” is probably Will’s finest moment.  A track which succeeds on so many levels.  A great song written by Eg White and a convincing vocal performance with a good build and another memorable video of Will fixated on us at an art gallery which is both affecting and slightly disturbing which helped it shift a few units.  It was on this song that Will moved from successful pop talent show artist to an act who Britain should be proud of.  A number 1 single which was awarded an Ivor Novello Award.  It also topped the charts in Ireland and made inroads in European charts such as Belgium, Norway, Italy and Sweden and world markets such as New Zealand and was heavily featured on American Idol getting Will recognised Stateside.

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 “Love Is A Matter Of Distance” is a gentle convincing number, with a warm vocal performance and leads into “Dance The Night Away”, a more uptempo, urgent funkier track .  “Very Kind” was co-written and co-produced by Robin Thicke who also in 2003 launched his album recording career with “A Beautiful Mind”.  Robin of course would go on to have a massive hit a decade later with “Blurred Lines” and possesses the same white soul boy feel as Will.  Here, a sweet vocal performance is boosted by good orchestration arrangement. 

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Robin Thicke

“Free” gives a composing credit nod to Bill Withers, another obvious hero of Will’s and an artist who Will was covering back in his Pop Idol days when he won audiences over with his performance of “Ain’t No Sunshine”.  I’m not sure which Withers song is being referenced here.  “Going My Way” is not one of the strongest tracks on display.  It has a contemporary acid-jazz feel but never fully reaches its stride and here I find the interplay between Will and backing voices which has been a real strength on this album a little bit annoying.  “Out Of My Mind” is a welcome uptempo club-influenced track which has the feel of Jamiroquai, which is no bad thing.

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The album closer is another gem of a track and became the third single from the album and reached number 4 some 7 months after the album became available. In its extended play here it pushes nine minutes and every single second of it works.  Once again it had an excellent video and from his performances on the videos that accompanied this album Will was able to re-establish his credentials as an actor which led to a period where both his music and dramatic performances went hand in hand.  “Friday’s’ Child” has a chunky sound and an arrangement which recalls artists such as Soul II Soul and is a totally credible strong way to round things off.  This is a track as strong musically with extended its instrumental sections as it is vocally and up there with his best and seems miles away from karaoke classics on a Saturday night entertainment show.   

With this album anyone who considered Will would just be another Saturday night pop puppet had to reconsider.  It’s a mature album with the singer at ease with himself as an artist and the type of music he was recording.  Taken as a whole, although there are stronger high spots this time round I personally give a slight edge to the debut, but there really is not much in it and both I consider essential albums. 

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Will has to date recorded another four studio albums, two of which also ascended to the top of the charts with the other two stalling at the runner-up position.  Music seems to have currently taken a bit of a back seat in favour of other interests since his last release in 2015.  The other studio albums have been strong but not in my opinion essential.  He has become an acclaimed actor, especially in musical theatre and an advocate for gay rights.  His role in the popular culture of this country so far this century is significant.

 

Friday’s Child is currently available in the UK from Amazon from £3.21 and used from £0.01.   In the US it is currently only available used from $1.51.  In the UK it is also on Spotify streaming service.

Do I Love You? -Paul McDonald (Tindal Street Press 2008)

 
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Tindal Street Press were an independent publishing house based at the delightful address of the The Custard Factory, Birmingham, with the remit initially of publishing local writers.  In the first decade of the Millennium they defied expectations by regularly getting their authors shortlisted for book awards.  Perhaps their most notable publication (especially for me who placed it in my Top 5 reads of 2014) was the 2007 “What Was Lost” by Catherine O’Flynn.

 In 2012 the company was purchased by Profile Books and sadly the three titles from Paul McDonald are no longer in print.  According to Amazon, McDonald is a course leader on Writing at Wolverhampton University who specialises in humour, and this is certainly evident in this novel.

 Minty is a 40 year old lollipop man whose life is thrown into further disarray when a television advert for Kentucky Fried Chicken rekindles his youthful interest in Northern Soul.  His  wife Hazel, a health visitor, is battling with her compulsions to weigh things and constantly look up words in the dictionary as well as coping with her liability of a husband and Kurt Cobain loving teen, Nigel, trading in drugs to boost his reputation.  A lot of humour is based on this generation clash and cultural references abound which might have dated this but actually hasn’t.  The title refers to perhaps the rarest of all the tracks which became big on the Northern Soul scene by Motown artist/producer Frank Wilson “Do I Love You? (Indeed I Do)” which is the song which provides the catalyst for the comic unravelling of the family.

 This is dark comedy with situations that should not be at all funny but occasionally are but where McDonald hits home is his incorporation of music, both the beloved Northern Soul of Minty and his friends’ youth and his son’s grunge tunes into the narrative in a very successful way.  Anyone who was into the quirky Wigan Casino centred scene of the 1970’s would get a lot from this affectionate view of rare records and grown men trying to relive their youth.  Another great strength is the characterisation who despite some pretty awful mishaps of their own doing manage to remain likeable.

 I read this quickly and enthusiastically and would certainly seek out another of McDonald’s titles the Crossroads referencing “Kiss Me Softly Amy Turtle”.  For me the humour here did not always hit home but that did not mar my enjoyment of this title.

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Do I Love You? was published by Tindal Street Press in 2008 and no longer seems to be currently in print.  Used copies can be purchased at a very worthwhile price on Amazon.

100 Essential Books – Take Nothing With You – Patrick Gale (2018)

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Way back in 1995 following a couple of recommendations from people whose opinions I valued concerning an author I’d heard of and never read I bought two Patrick Gale novels, “Ease” from 1986 which I thought was okay and his debut “The Aerodynamics Of Pork” (also 1986) which I really didn’t like and at that point I thought I’d probably not go out of my way to read more from this author, but the following year, after good publicity I sought out “Facts Of Life” (1995) and I was extremely glad that I did as it ended up in my Top 5 reads for that year.

Since then I have read a fair amount of Patrick Gale. This is his 17th novel (including one in conjunction with Tom Wakefield) of which I have now read nine plus one short story collection. He was back in my end of year Top 10’s with 2000’s “Rough Music” and 2012’s “A Perfectly Good Man” – a beautifully written tale of a Cornish vicar approaching retirement who encounters a tragedy involving one of his parishioners. I also really enjoyed (although it just missed out on my Top 10 ) his 2015 novel “A Place Called Winter” which attracted a wide readership and won over a lot of people (especially in reading groups where it was a popular choice) who had not discovered him before and was nominated for awards. This was a rare foray for him into the historical novel, set largely in Canada around the time of World War I. Despite being set in the distant past this was an intensely personal work as the author took his inspiration from a memoir written by his grandmother and used his imagination to fill in the gaps. Following this he turned out a well-received screenplay for “Man In The Orange Shirt” first shown as part of the Queer Britannia strand on BBCTV celebrating 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Once again the personal and fiction overlapped as this was based upon an incident in his parents’ marriage.

With his reputation buoyant came this much anticipated title and after much reflection I  can say that I think “Take Nothing With You” is his best novel to date and all that potential has been building to this work which both enhances and broadens the belief that he is one of the best British living novelists. It feels like his handling of the last two more personal works have been internalised and caused him to create his most touching and affecting novel. And it goes without saying it is beautifully written.

Patrick Gale, who was a talented cello player in his youth has here created Eustace, a talented cello player in his youth who has taken up the instrument again in later life. Now passing the 50 mark he is encountering a threat to his health and whilst undergoing treatment the cello music he listens to in order to pass the time causes a reflection on his past.

The young Eustace is one of Gale’s most memorable creations, a naïve and occasionally prissy youth self-absorbed by his instrument and cello lessons but at the same time having to learn about life, coming to grips with both the doors his musical talent might open for him as well as coming to terms with his sexuality. I would say that this is Gale’s most gay-themed novel and the time feel right for him to do this. John Boyne has also seen his reputation soar recently penning a classic gay-themed novel which attracted a much wider readership than it would have done a decade before and this is also of top quality.

There is also a lot of cello playing, which I thought would put me off, as often novels about music and musicians do not work as well as they think they do but here I was fascinated. I fell in love with the boy growing up in his parents’ old people’s home in Weston-Super-Mare in the 1970s with ambitions to be a musical great if only his mother and father and society will let him realise his dreams. It is haunting, nostalgic and sensitive and has all the qualities to make it an essential read. I’m happy to give this book my first five star rating this year.

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Take Nothing With You was published in hardback by Tinder Press in 2018. The paperback is due out on 4th April 2019.

You Will Be Safe Here – Damian Barr (Bloomsbury 2019)

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British writer and journalist Damian Barr’s first novel takes in over a hundred years of South African history beginning with the Boer War where a “scorched earth” policy led to those unwilling to sign a pledge of allegiance to the British Crown being evicted from their homes and into internment camps.  For the first section of the novel we follow Mrs Van Der Witt and her young son Fred through diary entries written in the camp intended for her husband fighting the English in 1901.

 A prologue introduces us to a modern camp which is picked up on again in the second narrative thread when teenager Willem’s parents send him to a conversion camp to make a man out of him.  The two narratives are linked through location and a school history lesson visit to the turn of the century site.

This is a powerful and chilling read and is, on consideration, the best book I have read so far this year ahead of critically acclaimed titles from big-hitters such as Kate Atkinson, Belinda Bauer and Liam McIlvanney.  The history of South Africa is complex but by touching on two time zones Barr manages to get an epic sweep and involves the reader through strong characterisation and an unpredictable and occasionally brutal plot.

 The aspect which stops me giving it five stars, thus keeping it as a book I would certainly like to hang onto to read again rather than a book I couldn’t bear to part with is its narrative structure which makes some significant moments seem a little unresolved and despite some connections makes the early narrative a little distant from the contemporary one.  I think running the two strands a little more side by side could have been more powerful, but probably as many readers would be frustrated by this structure.  Here, I felt the moving forwards through time at critical moments seemed a little jarring as these moments are left to dangle and not always be picked up immediately, which felt a little like producing cliff hangers for cliff hangers sake.  This can be done very successfully as in John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” but here at times I found it slightly grating.

 Minor quibbles, however, for a very strong debut novel written with what I can best describe as a calm powerfulness which will stay with the reader for a considerable time.

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 You Will Be Safe Here is published in hardback by Bloomsbury on April 4th.  Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.

The Confessions Of Frannie Langton – Sara Collins (Viking 2019) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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Here’s a debut out in April with a big buzz about it which appeared in many highlights of 2019 listings (including my very own Looking Back Looking Forward … blog post) so I was delighted to get the chance to read an advance review copy.

 This is Frannie Langton’s account of how she got away from being a slave at a sugar plantation in Jamaica in the first quarter of the nineteenth century and ended up in London on trial at the Old Bailey for the murder of her employers.

 It is very much a novel of two parts.  Although we know from the outset of Frannie’s predicament, the first half is set in Jamaica where as a child she was taken up from the plantation shacks to be a house girl, and then, after being taught to read and write by her bored mistress becomes a scribe and assistant for her master, Langton.  He is involved in disturbing experimentation to discover the difference between the anatomies of whites and blacks.

 Damaged by what she has experienced she turns up in London joining the household of one of Langton’s academic rivals where she is drawn by the attention paid to her by his French wife.

 Through a first- person confessional interspersed with extracts from the court case we begin to piece together what has happened, but very slowly, as Sara Collins certainly keeps us dangling.  This might actually frustrate some readers who’ll think they missed out on something important as part of the Jamaican narrative seems underwritten and only becomes significant much later on.  All is eventually explained.  Characterisation is rich and gutsy with some strongly developed minor roles.  Pace is generally good although for me it dipped in the early London sequence when the relationship between Frannie and Marguerite takes a prominent role.

 Readers loving Sarah Waters’ novels such as “Fingersmith”, “Affinity” and “Tipping The Velvet” should certainly be made aware of this novel and with Waters  moving towards more modern history in her novels in recent years there seems to be a gap which authors are keen to fill.  Two debuts from last year spring to mind Imogen Hermes Gower’s splendid “The Mermaid And Mrs Hancock” and Laura Carlin’s deliciously Gothic “The Wicked Cometh” which also has a female-female relationship as its focus.  I don’t think Sara Collins’ work is quite as good as either of these top-notch novels but it is a close-run thing with the Jamaican slave dimension adding another level of complexity and richness.  All in all, this is a superior historical crime novel that does live up to pre-publication expectations and should end up selling well.


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The Confessions Of Frannie Langton is published on April 4th 2019 by Viking.  Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 52– Will Young – From Now On

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From Now On – Will Young (19 2002)

UK Chart Position – 1

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If twenty-three year old Will Young had not won the first series of ITV’s “Pop Idol” it is possible the whole reality talent show movement might have died a quiet death.  The format of finding a star on television had really faded since the 70’s and the heyday of starmaking duo of “Opportunity Knocks” and “New Faces” until it was revived in what initially seemed a small show “Pop Stars”.  This talent show format was intended to form a group and ended up with Hearsay and a totally unexpected huge sales volume for their first single “Pure And Simple”. 

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Hearsay, the original “Popstars”

If it worked with a group it could work with a solo artist but when the first series of “Pop Idol” launched nobody was totally sure and nobody would have predicted that it would have spun off versions all around the world and still seventeen years later remain one of the most significant formats in UK television (and now through its overfamiliarity often reviled) with its own Saturday night juggernaut spin-off “ The X Factor”.  Will’s victory certainly got cash tills ringing with well over a million copies of his debut single sold in the first week, with two more number ones following on before the release of his first album in October 2002 which also topped the charts and followed up with a double A-sided single which reached number 2. 

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And yet Will Young was not expected to win.  Throughout the competition the hot favourite had been Gareth Gates and the famous look of surprise on Will’s face when it was announced he had won was echoed on viewer’s faces around the country.  The debut single had to be ready to be released immediately, as this had worked so well in Hearsay’s favour and so the three finalists, Will, Gareth and Darius recorded their versions of “Evergreen” a song that seemed much better suited to Gareth’s voice.  Perhaps the tension that was reputedly there between Will and music mogul and benefactor of these huge sales, Simon Cowell, that had simmered throughout the show became something a little more serious from this point.  It seems to be a well established fact that Cowell wanted and expected Gareth Gates to win.  Although for a time there was room in the public hearts for both acts (with Will and Gareth topping the charts together with a song which appears on this album) it was Will’s career that had the longevity and by far the bigger sales.

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 Will Vs. Gareth

The release of the debut album was thankfully not rushed in the same way as the single and it remains by far the strongest debut from a Simon Cowell helmed reality show winner.  Although other non-winners had launched strong first albums (including Olly Murs, Rowetta, Marcus Collins, Rebecca Ferguson)the actual winners had to put up with albums that were musically patchy, even if they were being launched on a worldwide stage, like Leona Lewis.  Will’s is, in my opinion, the best of the bunch.

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It opens with that double-sided huge hit taking up the first two tracks of the CD.  Sales of 1.79 million in the UK which still remains the highest debut single sales for a solo artist and makes these tracks according to a quick check at the Official Charts Company the 19th biggest selling single of all time fitting in between The Beatles “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and the hit-twice around of John Lennon’s “Imagine”.   It is the 5th biggest track ever by a solo male artist slotting in behind Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Stevie Wonder and Bryan Adams.  The UK in 2002 were undoubtedly swept up in Pop Idol fever and it’s hard to see it as a classic single compared to some of the others in the all-time Top 20 but I actually really quite like both songs.  “Evergreen” was written by the Swedish triumvirate Jorg Eloffson, Per Magnusson, and David Kreuger and had previously been an album track by Westlife and that is what it sounds like with its build and swell and key changes but there is something in Will’s voice that pushes this up to another level which is not there in the Westlife version.  The songwriters were part of what was known as the Cheiron song-writing team of around about a dozen who worked at the Stockholm studio and between them were responsible for countless pop hits in the 90’s and 00’s for artists such as Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Boyzone, Westlife, Celine Dion, Ace of Base who dominated charts in that era with songs that might have veered towards the formulaic at times but it was certainly a winning formula.

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I like even more “Anything Is Possible” with its slicker soul sound and a lovely vocal performance from Will which saves it from a slight sugariness.  This was written and produced by former solo recording star Cathy Dennis alongside Chris Braide in composition duties and Oskar Paul in production duties.  A song was commissioned for the winners by Pop Idol head man Simon Fuller from the writing duo because of work they had done with S Club 7.  (Simon Fuller is perhaps the forgotten man in all this- at this stage Simon Cowell was just one of the judges, it was Fuller who had the control and held the purse strings).  This has a great example of the Will Young soaring note which he always does so well and has become a bit of a trademark for him. 

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Follow-up single “Light My Fire” was a cover version of the Doors song that would have been familiar to viewers of Pop Idol as Will had featured a version of it back in the Top 50 stage of the show.  This was very much a turning point for Will as Simon Cowell described the performance as “average” and a miffed Will answered him back.  This was the moment the public really got behind him and results published after the series had finished showed that at this stage the public had awarded him with the highest number of votes where he would remain until the Top 6 when he slipped to second place behind Gareth Gates in Abba Week and would remain behind him until the final when he emerged from the background to take the Pop Idol crown.  We viewers never knew it was as close as this and most would have assumed that Gareth and perhaps Darius were scoring higher with the public throughout than they actually were.  I did vote for Will all along (and had a considerably higher than average phone bill that quarter to prove it!)

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So when looking for a follow-up to one of the biggest selling singles of all time perhaps a studio version of “Light My Fire” produced by Absolute was an inspired choice. It had been a hit song on five previous occasions, the original by The Doors had been a US#1 in 1967 but had to wait 24 more years before it became a UK Top 10 hit reaching number 7 in 1991.  Ironic cheesy retro performer Mike Flowers Pops took a version just into the Top 40 five years later and acts such as UB40 and Shirley Bassey had released it as a single without much success.  In fact the most successful chart placing up to this point had been disco singer Amii Stewart who had placed it in a medley with “137 Disco Heaven” and got to number 5 in 1979.  However, the version that Will’s took more of its inspiration was the cool jazz-enriched version by Jose Feliciano which had reached number 6 in the UK in 1968 and number 3 in the US.  Rich in acoustic guitar Will’s version is lovely and became his second chart-topper.

Cathy Dennis’s presence is there as songwriter and producer (one with Mike Peden)  of the next two tracks, one written with Robbie Williams’ hitmaker Guy Chambers and one with Will himself.  “Lover Won’t You Say” is another piece of chunky jazz-soul which has the kind of wistfulness I associate with cool bands such as Swing Out Sister.  “Lovestruck” with its acoustic guitar intro feels like a deceptively sweet simple song which has a warmth which makes it one of the highlights of the album. 

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It was certainly one eye on the tills which decided upon single number 3  put out just before the release of the album.  Combine the fans of Will with those of runner-up Gareth Gates who had himself by this time also scored two number 1 singles.  The decision was to record The Beatles’ “The Long And Winding Road” was an okay one I suppose and it was almost a guaranteed number 1 which it achieved for two weeks.  It’s nice enough and on the few bits they sing together their voices harmonise nicely.  There are better cover versions of this song around however.

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Once the album was released most people who forked out for it would have been highly likely to have had at least a couple of the three tracks already released as singles.  It probably wouldn’t have made much sense to put out a lot of singles after this, but around a month after the release the only track to be put out after the album’s release was the strong “You And I”.  It was packaged alongside a new track “Don’t Let Me Down” as the official Children In Need Single of 2002 and stalled at number 2.

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After this rash of singles the last six tracks set out the future for Will Young including another two Cathy Dennis songs (one alongside Will again) and one with the legendary Burt Bacharach and three written by a team of Richard Stannard, Julian Gallagher, Dave Morgan, Simon Hale and Will Young.  What was evident right from this point was that Will was not going to be another pop puppet with strings pulled by management or song-writing or production teams.  He was going to be involved right from the start and that determination led to the odd story that he was prickly when in fact he was just keen not to go down some pre-determined route.  This also helped him be loved by the British public.  These are all consistently good pop songs with my favourites of the bunch being the Dennis and Bacharach combo “What’s In Goodbye”, which hides its complexity under a song which seems initially simple, as do many of Bacharach’s best songs and the jazz-influenced “Over You”.

 The final track seems the start of a new chapter for Will.  “Fine Line” is produced by Mike Peden and written with him alongside E and H Johnson and is an intense, dramatic, pretty uncommercial piece of mood music which has an exemplary vocal performance and seems to me to be a long way away from a duet version of “The Long And Winding Road”.  This is a mature, brave way to close the album. 

 Next time round the song-writing and production teams would be completely different (other than Will’s own involvement of course) but this closing track seems to me to be the one that sows the seeds for some of things we would hear musically and vocally in 2003’s follow-up album “Friday’s Child”.

From Now On is currently available from new  Amazon in the UK for £3.28  and used from £0.01.  In the US it is available new from $12.99 and used from $0.98.  In the UK it is currently available to stream from Spotify.

The Quaker – Liam McIlvanney (2018) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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One of the more intriguing turn-ups in literary awards in 2018 came via the McIlvanney Prize given each year to the best Scottish Crime novel. In 2016 this award was renamed in honour of the writer known as “The Godfather Of Tartan Noir”, William McIlvanney who died in 2015. The previous winners since the rebranding had been Chris Brookmyre and Denise Mina and in 2018 the Prize went to Liam McIlvanney, William’s son for “The Quaker”.

There’s certainly no nepotism at work here as this is a very strong slab of crime fiction which fulfils the criteria perfectly and beat off the other shortlisted new titles by previous winners Brookmyre and Charles Cumming together with Lin Anderson.

This is Liam McIlvanney’s sixth publication which includes three fiction (a two parts of the way through trilogy begun in 2009) and three non-fiction works, two of these in conjunction with Ray Ryan. This novel is, hopefully the first in a new series, set in late 1960s Glasgow featuring DI Duncan McCormack, a member of the Flying Squad team who is seconded to an ongoing murder investigation to produce a report as to why a triple killer known as “The Quaker” has remained undetected. His interest in the case turns into a personal obsession whilst those above him want the investigation scaled down.

I like the feel of the period, clearly illustrated as a time when “the polis” operated with different standards. McCormack is a closeted gay officer at a time when homosexuality in Scotland still equalled a prison sentence and career ruin and this adds a fascinating dimension which stands this character out from the norm of crime fiction detectives.

The victims are also allowed to express their viewpoint in first person narrative sections, another thing which here is done well and adds to rather than impedes the flow of the piece.

I found this very readable and highly entertaining. I very much liked McCormack who is an outsider here in more than one sense and I would be very keen to read more novels featuring him.

McIlvanney currently works and lives in New Zealand but has convincingly conveyed the feel of Sixties Glasgow. There’s political incorrectness a-plenty with the nickname of a killer known to make biblical references a case in point. The novel was actually loosely based upon a real like killing spree by an individual known as Bible John, an undetected serial killer from the same time and location. Those who like their crime gripping and hovering around the edge of darkness should seek this out. I have limited experience of Scottish crime but this has certainly whetted my appetite to read more.
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The Quaker was published in hardback in June 2018 and in paperback by Harper Collins in Feb 2019. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 69– Stevie Wonder – Hotter Than July

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Hotter Than July – Stevie Wonder (Motown 1980)
UK Chart Position – 2
US Chart Position – 3

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Four years on from his essential “Songs In The Key Of Life” opus Stevie Wonder put out his next proper studio album. The result, was for me, even better than what had gone before. “Hotter Than July” is the Stevie Wonder album that has given me the most pleasure over the years. Part of this might be because it was the first of his albums that I did not come to retrospectively, I bought it as soon as it came out but I think it is also because these ten tracks encapsulate the magic and genius of Stevie Wonder in a concise. meaningful way.

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Stevie had not just been resting on his laurels since “Songs In The Key Of Life”. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall at the Motown Offices when he announced that his follow-up to this huge selling classic album would be a double album movie soundtrack for a documentary about plants. The film is long-forgotten but with the music Stevie came very close to producing another essential work. It is certainly something I would consider as being five stars but just misses out on being essential. It’s very nature as a soundtrack meant it was a combination of songs with vocals, instrumentals and repeated themes which, although at times absolutely terrific, did not hold together as well as the best of his studio recordings. What it lacked was a big hit single like he had when he later worked on “The Woman In Red” Soundtrack, a much higher profile film which gave him his biggest selling hit in “I Just Called To Say I Love You.” Nevertheless, “The Journey Of The Secret Life Of Plants” was not shunned by the record-buying public. In the US it reached number 4 in the album charts, number 8 in the UK. Every time I listen to it I am surprised by how good it still sounds.

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With “Hotter Than July” Wonder was back with a very commercial feel which produced a Top 5 and Top 20 hit in the US and really got the thumbs up in the UK with four top 10 singles including two which stopped just one place short of the top spot, very good going for a 10 track CD. And with these ten tracks we had very strong examples of what Stevie excelled at from uptempo funk, to social commentary, to political activism, to ballads which have become soul classics to those which edged towards the cheesy and as might be expected, everything was written and produced by the man himself. Technologically, he was once again using the latest equipment and although there was nothing radically different on this, his 19th studio album it certainly sounded fresh in 1980 and still, although not often critically cited as being amongst his very best, it still sounds good today.

Album opener “Did I Hear You Say You Love Me” is a strong uptempo slab of funk which recalls the danceability of “I Wish” and “Superstition” without being as compulsive. This eases into “All I Do” which was a song from the Wonder back catalogue. He originally wrote it alongside Clarence Paul in 1966, in the early days of Stevie’s career, when he was aged 15 as a solo track for Tammi Terrell, best known for her classic duets with Marvin Gaye. I have always really liked Stevie’s version with its star backing vocalists including Michael Jackson, Miami hit-maker Betty Wright and representing Motown’s rival Philadelphia Sound, two thirds of the O’Jays, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. It’s a really romantic track which oozes sincerity and there’s a good sax solo courtesy of Hank Redd. The original Tammi Terrell version was largely unheard of until Motown began raiding its vaults in its “A Cellarful Of Motown” series which appeared in 2002. Her version entitled “All I Do (Is Think About You)” is exceptional and completely blew me away when I heard it hidden on this CD set of unreleased tracks. It has become one of my all-time favourites, and so whilst I still enjoy Stevie’s very much, it is definitely the original version which really hits home for me.

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Tammi Terrell

With “Rocket Love” Stevie certainly approaches the cheese counter in the way in which he had done previously with tracks such as “My Cherie Amour” and would certainly do again with “I Just Called To Say I Love You” but once again he really gets away with it and comes up with a track which I should write off as cheesy but find it impossible to do. This one has lyrics like “A female Shakespeare of your time with looks to blow Picasso’s mind” for goodness sake. And yet, from its “do do do” introduction it weaves a laid-back hypnotic spell and if lyrically dodgy it is musically lovely with an exquisite swirling string arrangement by Paul Riser.

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The next track “I Ain’t Gonna Stand For It” was surprisingly chosen to be the second single from the album in favour of later singles which if released earlier would have surely topped the UK charts and in favour of another couple which remained on the album and which could also have been big hits.  In fact, this is probably the track I like the least. As a single it got to number 11 in the US and one place better over here. It goes for a slightly hillbilly country and western feel, especially in the verse which gives the suggestion that Stevie’s vocal is not quite up to scratch, especially on the lower notes but it has a good humoured feel about it, which makes it pleasant but slightly throwaway, which is surprising that Motown on both sides of the Atlantic went with this track to follow up what has been the big opening hit from the album. The first side of the vinyl album ended with the much stronger “If You Could Read My Mind”. This is reminiscent of the salsa flavour that Stevie brought to “Another Star” from “Songs In The Key of Life”, which was a great track which just went on too long. This is shorter, tighter and effective, even though the song itself is not as likeable as “Another Star”. There is another memorable harmonica solo from Stevie, however.

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With the lead single “Masterblaster (Jammin’) Stevie was largely giving kudos to another performer, in much the way he had celebrated the jazz greats in “Sir Duke”.  Stevie had flirted with reggae before, most obviously with his hit track “Boogie On Reggae Woman” from 1974 but in 1980 Bob Marley and The Wailers had been Stevie’s opening act on his US tour (they hadn’t made the commercial breakthrough that they had throughout much of the rest of the world) and this track was largely Wonder’s salute to another musical visionary, Bob Marley.  He gets a name check, “Marley’s hot on the box” and the album’s title is also referenced within this song.  The song itself is optimistic and  uplifting “When you’re moving in the positive/Your destination is the brightest star.”  It’s as if amongst all the social issues raised within the music from both artists there comes a point when you just have to enjoy yourself and get dancing.  Marley did not work with Stevie on this track but his influence is there.  It’s a reggae flavoured track rather than a reggae track and that ensured its commercial success in the US who had to this point not fully embraced reggae.  In fact, Marley would never have a US pop hit single.  Stevie’s attempt to introduce his music to America reached number 5 Stateside and was a number 2 in the UK (held off by “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” by The Police).

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Stevie with Bob Marley

“Do Like You” is more, like “Isn’t She Lovely”, paternal pride, this time a song about Keita who was three at the time of this album’s release.  It’s a musical anecdote about his love for dancing, learnt by copying his big sister, to winning a school talent show.  It’s an enjoyable enough track and ends with Mummy’s vase ending up in pieces. From the light-hearted we move onto “Cash In Your Face” , the most serious track on the album where Stevie adopts the role of social commentator again in the guise of a potent funk track.  It’s about insidious underhand racism with the title providing a clever play on words “You might have the cash/but you can’t cash in your face”.  A track which still feels relevant today.  Stevie here plays two roles, the tenant and the racist landlord and it all works very well.

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“Lately” is a little gem of a track and the album’s highpoint.  This was the one everyone was clamouring for in the UK and Motown eventually relented making it the third single release and it got to number 3 (I still say it would have topped the charts if it was put out straight after “Masterblaster”).  In the US something went very awry because it did not become a hit.  It’s a majestic, superbly structured sad soul ballad about facing up to emotional insecurity and jealousy within a relationship.  The piano work is beautiful and there is some real pathos about a blind man writing such lines as “But what I really feel my eyes won’t let me hide.”

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Perhaps the biggest surprise came at the end of the album.  Stevie had been a leading campaigner to recognise the birthdate of Martin Luther King as a US national holiday and here he advanced his cause considerably worldwide by putting the campaign to music.  The nature of the track “Happy Birthday” with its sing-along chorus may have been felt to have clouded the seriousness of the issue lying behind the song, the non-recognition of a man who had done so much to further the civil rights movement.  However, annoying the song might get it was effective in getting a message across to a wider audience.  In 1983 Martin Luther King Day was officially agreed upon for a  mid-January celebration and the first took place  (it wasn’t exactly rushed in) three years later.

In fact, the message would have hit home more outside his homeland as it completely failed to make the charts as a single in the US.  Perhaps a fourth single was asking too much of an American record-buying public who had already bought the album in droves.  Over here we loved it and it once again took Stevie to number 2 in the UK charts (this time it was the less worthy “Green Door” by Shakin’ Stevens which prevented Stevie from getting his first UK solo number 1 single during the summer of 1981).  I think we were looking for a viable alternative to the traditional “Happy Birthday To You” and both this and Altered Images’ 1981 hit with the same title which followed pretty hot on the heels of Stevie’s tracks provided this.  For the past nearly 40 years both tracks have provided radio and mobile DJ’s with the opportunity to dedicate a song to someone’s special day.  As an example of Stevie the political activist it fits nicely into the Wonder canon, but I’m not sure if it is going to be too many people’s favourite song by him, but it certainly gets people singing along.

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Despite welcoming Stevie into the 80’s, his third decade of hitmaking, this was the last time he produced an “Essential” studio album.  Much of the 80s were taken up with compilations or soundtrack work.  1985’s “In Square Circle” was a solid, enjoyable release (which did feature in “Overjoyed” one of my all time favourite tracks).  The nearest he has got to really blowing me away again was in his five star 2005 album “A Time 2 Love” in which he showed he was still a contemporary, extremely relevant performer.  Despite this being so good it was the last Stevie studio album to date.  Now in his late 60’s releasing new music is not so hot in his priorities.

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I really enjoy listening to “Hotter Than July” and more than any other Wonder album it takes me back to the time when it was released.  My only gripe is that my CD copy suffers from somewhat muted sound probably because of the way it was taken from the masters in the early days of CD releasing.  I’m sure the version currently available from Amazon which states it is “Remastered” has put this right.  It’s not really an issue in itself because I just turn the sound up a notch but these tracks don’t work so well in general playlists on the I-Pod.   I do have “Lately” on there however and just have to crank up the volume each time it comes on.

Hotter Than July Songs is currently available in the UK from Amazon for £5.69 and used from £1.88.  In the US it no longer seems to be on general issue and is available, other than as an impor, used from $3.89 but it is there as a download.  In the UK it is available to stream from Spotify.