BILLY PRESTON: LATE AT NIGHT (1979)
1) Give It Up, Hot; 2) Late At Night; 3) All I Wanted Was You; 4) You; 5) I Come To Rest In You; 6) It Will Come In Time; 7) Lovely Lady; 8) With You I'm Born Again; 9) Sock-It Rocket.
Mediocrity notwithstanding, it has to be recognized that Billy never really made a truly «bad» disco album, despite becoming so deeply stuck in the genre and still sticking to it even at the height of the «disco sucks» backlash. In fact, his last disco-era album, and also his first for Motown after the expiration of his A&M contract, might be his finest — despite the utterly godawful album sleeve (which would still be overwhelmed in godawfulness by the next album, but we do have to remember that the visual standards of mainstream cool do not always correlate with musical quality... well, they tend to, but they don't always do it... well, they usually do, but there are exceptions... well, yeah, it's like about 95% to 5% exceptions, but still... well all right, probably more like 99.1% to 0.9%... well, we do have to be open-minded about it, don't we?).
Two ballads, one instrumental groove, and six disco-dance vocal numbers. The only song that made any sort of impact here is ʽWith You I'm Born Againʼ, the sentimental oh-so-adult contemporary duet with Syreeta written for the forgotten comedy Fast Break. The song quickly overshadowed the movie, became a big international hit, and allegedly raised the birth rate in several countries by a few percent — the last statement is a guess, but even professional haters of the sappy ballad style will have to admit that Syreeta's honey-purr, carefully wrapped in harps and violins, does have the properties of a sexual stimulant (not so sure about Billy's contribution — friendly charisma is one thing, but as a «ladies' man», he is no Al Green or Marvin Gaye, whereas Syreeta really has one of the sexiest voices of her generation). The melody, alas, is almost unbearably mushy, but this was the age of Xanadu, after all.
The album in general sounds nothing like the hit, though — it's packed with bubbling disco grooves that are not in the least offensive, as Billy's large backing band still plays it out like a real band rather than a set of sonic robots producing basic rhythms for aerobic purposes. Funky guitar and keyboard leads, brisk Latin percussion, hot live sax breaks, vocal hooks — nothing outstanding, as usual, but everything perfectly listenable. Actually, ʽGive It Up, Hotʼ that opens te album is almost close to being outstanding — the chorus, dominated by Gloria Jones and her backing girls, raises the playfulness bar much higher than the first forty-five seconds could suggest; at least, the girls push the limits a little further than Billy usually does by himself.
Of the other songs, the funniest ones are those where Billy still indulges in his «kids-and-I» spirit, adding ska-influenced choruses or breaks over the disco skeletons — particularly ʽIt Will Come In Timeʼ, which is not really any less deserving than ʽNothing From Nothingʼ. On the other hand, the instrumental ʽSock-It Rocketʼ is disappointing: it sounds no different from all the vocal numbers where the biggest attraction is the vocal hook, but... no vocal hook, and Billy's synthesizer improvs are getting less and less imaginative with age.
Overall, this is one of those albums that can actually make one lament over the passing of the «classic» disco age — at least you can occasionally get yourself a human-driven rhythm section, and such ideas as «guitar / bass interplay» or «no pre-programmed keyboards» are still in the air. Basically, you can overcome the limitations of the disco beat if you still preserve the notion of good taste — but you just can't beat a MIDI protocol. Mild, but certain thumbs up.