Friday, April 22, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 859: Bill Withers

One of the side effects of reviewing albums is that they get into your head that much deeper. Before I write one of these I will have typically have listened to the album two to three times in a row with a very active ear.

This next record is a good one, but I want something else kicking around in my head when I head downtown to do some chores, so I’m getting this review written before I leave.

Disc 859 is….Menagerie
Artist: Bill Withers

Year of Release: 1977

What’s up with the Cover? Bill can’t decide what he wants this record to be – sixties soul or seventies disco, and this cover sums that dilemma up. A classy looking Bill Withers head & shoulders shot surrounded by a bunch of goofy animals with dilated pupils that look high on coke.

How I Came To Know It: I really liked my double album of “Just as I Am” and “Still Bill” (reviewed back at Discs 627 and 628) and so I decided to get something else by him.

How It Stacks Up:  I must regrettably place “Menagerie” third out of my three albums. Here’s the full list:

  1. Just as I Am: 4 stars (reviewed back at Disc 627)
  2. Still Bill: 4 stars (reviewed back at Disc 628)
  3. Menagerie: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
Ratings: 3 stars

“Menagerie” is a record that can’t decide what it wants to be: early seventies soul music or late seventies disco music. As a result it does a good job of both but a great job at neither.

One thing is certain though, while some tracks are more soul and others more disco, all of them sound like baby making music. “Menagerie” is a sexy album with a smooth groove that will make you want to curl up with your girl in front of a brick fireplace. Maybe lay down on the orange shag carpet and…well, you know.

Bill Withers has an exceptional voice, and although the songs on “Menagerie” aren’t as strong as the two albums I reviewed earlier, Withers’ vocals carry a lot of punch. On “Lovely Day” he carries a single note through most of each chorus with clarity and beauty. It is a reminder to modern R&B singers that not every sustained note needs a bunch of runs in it to be great. Just sing it strong and pure and let the song take care of the rest.

Regrettably, Withers’ vocal prowess can’t overcome the shortcomings of every song. “I Want To Spend the Night Together” is an exceptional vocal, but the song feels like a cross between seventies a.m. radio schmaltz and something you’d hear a second-rate crooner sing at a tiki lounge. Withers is first-rate all the way, but he can only pull this song up to “average” at best.

Better is “Lovely Night for Dancing” which is bolstered by a groovy beat and a horn section. It is still a bit a.m. radio, but the groove is too infectious to be denied, and Withers’ is on the top of his vocal game, particularly with his phrasing choices.

She Wants To (Get On Down)” is full-on disco, and Withers’ smooth soul voice is slightly out of place, but rather than hurting the track, it gives it a bit of groove that a bunch of back-up singers going “Get Down! Get Down!” couldn’t have managed alone. It may be a guilty pleasure, but I like this song.

Production-wise this album makes some questionable choices, as it can’t decide if it wants to side with disco organ and synthesizer or soul trumpet and piano. As a result the songs lack direction.  

My CD version of “Menagerie” is a 2003 re-issue and the Soulless Record Execs couldn’t resist putting three bonus tracks on it. I’m usually disinclined to like bonus tracks, and these three did nothing to disavow me of such prejudice. We are provided the radio single version of “Lovely Night for Dancing” and an instrumental version of “Let Me Be the One You Need.” The former is basically a shorter version of the original and the latter is like the original, minus the best thing about the record; Withers’ voice.

As for the third bonus track, “Rosie” the less said the better. The song is half droning piano romance and half strange synthesizer sounds that would better fit on an ELO or Alan Parsons Project record. The song is an embodiment of the stylistic disconnect of the main record, and just made me notice it anew.

Overall, “Menagerie” is a good record. Buoyed by Bill Withers’ voice and some very sexy grooves, it has its moments. If it had tried to do less, I would have liked it even more.

Best tracks:  Lovely Day, Lovely Night for Dancing, She Wants To (Get On Down)

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