BILLY PRESTON: BILLY PRESTON (1976)
1) Do What You Want; 2) Girl; 3) Bells; 4) I've Got The Spirit; 5) Ecstasy; 6) Bad Case Of Ego; 7) Take Time To FIgure It Out; 8) Let The Music Play; 9) Simplify Your Life; 10) Let's Make Love; 11) When You Are Mine.
A self-titled album that comes in the middle of an artist's career is usually taken to signify a «reboot» of sorts — «please allow me to re-introduce myself», «now I'm twice the man I used to be», that sort of thing. And indeed, Billy is photographed on the cover in an introductory pose — in a new and, frankly speaking, rather disturbing light. With the huge Afro hair cut away to make room for the brand new top hat, the setup suggests Vegas glitz, and the chronological context suggests disco-rama. In this context, even the familiar tooth gap begins to look corny, rather than reassuring, as it always used to be.
Next, a brief glance at the track listing shows that at least three of the tracks are re-recordings — one number from That's The Way God Planned It (ʽDo What You Wantʼ), two more from Encouraging Words (ʽLet The Music Playʼ and ʽWhen You Are Mineʼ). More cause for worrying: since it would clearly be hard to improve on these songs' melodic genius, it is more likely that they were singled out for experimental treatment — restructure and polish the grooves to fit the spirit of contemporary dance pop. And what do you know — that is exactly what they were singled out for, as becomes evident from the very first seconds.
Essentially, Billy Preston is a lite-disco album, reducing most of Billy's traditional sides (social message-oriented soul, party/booty-oriented R&B, heaven-bound gospel, and a little bit of sentimental balladry) to one single invariant. There are a couple exceptions, but for the most part, this is all just one non-stop crystal ball wave of entertainment. It doesn't sound awful at all — behind all the disco «smoothing» of the old funk grooves, Billy's backing band is still playing live and having fun, and it even sounds like Billy himself is having fun, even with the top hat on. But, as could be expected, there is next to nothing to distinguish it from its multiple brethren.
Guest stars are mostly wasted — supposedly, Merry Clayton (of ʽGimmie Shelterʼ fame) is somewhere here adding hardly noticeable background vocals, and if you pay close attention, you will witness Jeff Beck playing a really mean, revved-up fusion solo at the end of ʽBad Case Of Egoʼ, almost completely buried under the horns and vocals. Horns, by the way, are provided by Tower Of Power, which usually means quality, but it's not as if anybody took real good care of the arrangements here — everything is fluent enough, but completely passable.
There is but one instrumental this time around, and it's probably the best of the lot — the slow orchestrated «blues-waltz» of ʽEcstasyʼ, with tense, wailing synth and guitar solos, goes rather brusquely against the prevailing disco grain. Unfortunately, it has no autonomous, overriding theme to it, but it is still a serious piece of work, the only one here that I wouldn't mind «anthologizing» if Billy's post-1975 career is ever considered to qualify for selection. (Most people would probably slobber over ʽBad Case Of Egoʼ just because it has Jeff on it, but at least on ʽEcstasyʼ you can actually hear the guitar, even if it is only played by Steve Beckmeier).
That said, I will not denigrate the album even further with a thumbs down, not this time, either, because any record that has a cheery, lively feel like that, generated by one of the cheeriest guys in the business, is OK by me. Going disco may have killed off any serious aspirations that Billy's mid-1970s career could contain (what with all the Stevie Wonder collaborations, etc.), but it did not exactly kill off his spirit — just singed off some of his hair.