BOBBY WOMACK: COMMUNICATION (1971)
1) Communication; 2) Come L'Amore; 3) Fire And Rain; 4) (If You Don't Want My Love) Give It Back; 5) Monologue / (They Long To Be) Close To You; 6) Everything Is Beautiful; 7) That's The Way I Feel About Cha; 8) Yield Not To Temptation.
Although his previous records were hardly the epitome of commercial success, fate still smiled on Bobby and got him a nice promotion in the early 1970s — for his next record contract, Womack was rewarded with United Artists, and a possibility to record with the cream of the crop: the regular team at Muscle Shoals. Not that his older band was worth any serious criticism, but they were kind of old-fashioned, and in 1970, whether you were black or white, you had to change and adapt, or be ready to go down.
That same year, Bobby also played guitar on Sly & The Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On, learning how to behave in a hotter, crazier, funkier environment, and the results are immediately obvious on the very first track of his new album: ʽCommunicationʼ is a sleazy, steaming guitar groove that could be very easily mistaken for a mating call, if the lyrics did not explicitly refer to the idea of improving social relations through the power of communication and mutual trust (well, on the other hand, one does not necessarily exclude the other). Wah-wah riffage, distorted wailing leads, brass fanfare, Bobby at his screeching best (still a few notches below James Brown, but a decent substitute in case of need) — if this is a graduate exam in Funk School, I'd give senior student Robert Dwayne Womack a solid A, hold the plus for disciplinary reasons.
In general, however, Communication cannot be pigeonholed as a «funk album». Apart from the opening track, everything else is much more traditional: smooth, non-syncopated mid-tempo R&B grooves alternating with slow soulful ballads. As it always happens with Bobby, tracks are regularly loaded with small surprises, but «small surprises» are not «major stylistic revolutions»; the general difference is really in the backing band, which always seems on the verge of launching into something different, but in the end, stays where Bobby wants them to stay. On ʽGive It Backʼ, for instance, they fiddle and fuss around for about ten seconds, even starting out with the first bar of ʽBaby Please Don't Goʼ (that might actually be Bobby himself), then straighten out for the album's second-funkiest, but still «lite-dance-funk»-oriented groove.
The biggest hit from the album, and the song that genuinely restored Bobby's name on the chart of public conscience, was ʽThat's The Way I Feel About Chaʼ, a credible, but not particularly outstanding, love anthem whose major point of attraction might not even be the vocal melody and the repetitive chorus, but the melodic lead parts played by Jimmy Johnson, who does not get to have an instrumental break, but still takes the opportunity to solo all the way alongside Bobby's singing. This adventurous approach from the Muscle Shoals people is certainly an improvement over the competent and devoted, but not too initiative-oriented, style of Bobby's Memphis band.
In a particularly risky and bold approach, the man allocates almost ten minutes of Side B to an extended version of ʽClose To Youʼ, the first half of which is actually given to a half-spoken, half-hummed «monologue» in which Bobby apologizes to his audience for going «commercial» — quite an apt thing to do on a cover of a Burt Bacharach song that had just been turned into a monster hit for The Carpenters. With this cover, Bobby sets out to illustrate the major point of the monologue — that «music is music», and that, no matter what sort of material you sing or play, what really matters is the amount of soul you put into it.
To be honest, I am not sure that he is completely right on the issue — in fact, I'd probably take the slick, straight-jacketed Carpenters version of the song, pre-packaged and calculated as it is, over Bobby's sincere attempt to «ruffle» it up here and make it live and breathe. You can't really bring the stillborn back to life — you can stuff the stillborn and make it into an imposing, eerie waxwork, but you can't make it walk and talk, and ʽClose To Youʼ is one of those songs I'd rather hear as stiff and mechanical, because they are more memorable that way. Still, at the very least, Bobby's stance makes sense, and it is curious and instructive to hear him cover the song the way he does it. Whatever be, these nine and a half minutes are not wasted.
Without discussing the other songs (most are covers of not particularly strong material, and it is not clear if you will ever really need yet another individualistic version of James Taylor's ʽFire And Rainʼ), I will simply conclude that Communication is an uneven, but curious and rewarding «transitional» album, worthy of its thumbs up but not quite on the same level with the stuff that would follow. The most important thing about it is that the shift to a major label had not, in any way, silenced or muted the individual voice of Bobby Womack — on the contrary, just like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder at about the same time, the man's primary concern always rests on one crucial issue: how to remain inside the machine without turning into a part of the machine. He does not exactly resolve that issue — Communication has its fair share of «genericity» — but he is willing to give it a bigger try than ever before.
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