Thursday, November 5, 2015

Back In The High Life: Could've Aimed A Little Higher, Steve

By 1986, it seems like the man who'd spent his entire career aspiring to be the next Ray Charles was now aspiring to be the next ... Phil Collins? Steve Winwood caught one whiff of "Easy Lover" and "Sussudio" and said, "Hot damn, that's it! I need to do this R&B thing, but ... with processed horns, and pseudo-exotic percussion! You know, make it really white-sounding!" Phil showed him the light, and there was no going back to the dark ages. Also, according the album cover, Winwood apparently found a second career as a model in cologne ads.

Nothing screams passion like gospel music, and nothing screams watered-down mid-'80s Yuppie Rock passion like "Higher Love," which rose higher and higher on the charts until it hit #1 in the summer of '86. As a composition, it's as melodically sound as a '60s soul classic, but I feel like the production does justice to the composition in the same sense that Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby does justice to The Great Gatsby. Question: why would you bring in a horn section only to make it sound like a cheap synthesizer? Only God and Steve Winwood would know. Most hilariously "soulful" touch: the moment at 3:09 where the black backing vocalists (including Chaka Khan!) turn "bring" into "braaaang." Oh, it's already been brought-en.

I can think of finer Steve Winwood songs than "The Finer Things," but did they reach #8 and feature James Ingram and Dan Hartman (of "I Can Dream About You" fame) on backing vocals? No, they did not. In Phil Collins/Genesis terms, this one's more of a "No Reply At All" than a "Misunderstanding," but, to paraphrase another Winwood song, I can roll with it.

Then there's "Back In The High Life Again," otherwise known as that song whose opening I always hear on the radio and I'll start thinking, "Awesome! Tom Petty's 'Free Fallin''! Oh, wait, nope, it's that crappy Steve Winwood song." To give credit where credit is due, he did whip out the mandolin five years prior to "Losing My Religion. " But just when you thought Winwood couldn't get more WASPy and non-threatening, he brings in James Taylor to sing backing vocals. ZZZZZZ. The video looks like a coffee commercial. I think I'll need the coffee too.

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