Songs that I've known for a quarter of a century don't tend to stay in my brain's record rotation continuously for that long, but this song popped up out of nowhere in my consciousness once again. Maybe it's a sign that it's time to write about it.
"That Girl" is not exactly an obscure song, however. Stevie Wonder songs that chart tend to linger in the public consciousness because they have a lasting quality to them, after all. But in spite of all the Wonder hits that could be occupying my cranial jukebox, this 1982 tune sticks out to me for several reasons.
First off, it's got this glass smooth mid-tempo rhythm track. Wonder lets a drum machine set the basic beat then has his own drums accenting around it, especially with those fills at chorus time. All topped off by a severely funky synth bass line. This is the perfectly syncopated pulse that the listener is greeted with in the opening seconds before the melodic theme is stated.
Secondly---and somewhat related to the first point---is that once again, Stevie shows a knack of taking state-of-art electronic instruments and make they feel not so cold and unemotional. He keeps his electric piano and synth in the background and bleats out notes in between the beat to keep the groove in focus. That's why even well into the synth-crazy eighties, his songs still managed to have a timeless feel to them. His unmistakable harmonica in the instrumental break fits right in and provides the link to his more organic classic Motown soul of his pre-Music Of My Mind days.
And lastly, Wonder rarely forgets the importance of having of a good, strong melody. No matter how well Wonder used those gadgets, "That Girl" would still sound good without them. The interesting chord progression wouldn't be out of place in a jazz setting and in fact, I've heard this song adapted to jazz before somewhere.