BOBBY WOMACK: UNDERSTANDING (1972)
1) I Can Understand It; 2) Woman Got To Have It; 3) And I Love Her; 4) Got To Get You Back; 5) Simple Man; 6) Ruby Dean; 7) Thing Called Love; 8) Sweet Caroline; 9) Harry Hippie.
If a record called Communication is quickly followed up by a record called Understanding, this already suggests that there is not going to be a hell of a lot of difference between the two. And indeed, they have more or less the same length, more or less the same message, more or less the same stylistic and emotional variety, more or less the same players, and more or less the same balance between original songwriting by Bobby, original songwriting by his partners (Joe Hicks), and covers of contemporary material and oldies. The only objective difference is that Understanding was a much bigger hit — selling far more than its predecessor, as well as yielding another Top 50 single for Bobby (ʽHarry Hippieʼ).
The LP sales were actually bolstered by the radio popularity of the lead-in track, ʽI Can Understand Itʼ, which never made it onto a legit single, but became a club favorite nevertheless. Technically, it is not disco, but the combination of steady dance rhythmics, brass, and «lush» strings makes it the perfect accompaniment for nightlife in 1972 — loud, romantic, intoxicating, and calling for peace, love, and mutual understanding. My only complaint is that Bobby's sensuous lead lines are buried so deep in the mix, making the brass/strings combination the focal point of the tune and, consequently, somewhat dating its continued impact.
At the time, though, the track was extremely «commercial», and the rest of the album shows that Bobby was not at all interested in aligning himself with the likes of either Sly (for extra psychedelia or «social rebelliousness») or Funkadelic (for extra experimentation and a more aggressive sound). He got some teeth to chomp, for sure, but he does it only once: ʽSimple Manʼ is a nasty funky groove with an appropriately simple, but nagging bass line around which Bobby parades distorted guitar riffs, screechy blues leads, dark electric piano rolls, brass fanfare, and even some relatively primitive Moog synth solos. A simple man he may be, but so much less the reason to fool around with the simple man who can growl and snarl alongside the best of 'em.
But this is actually rare. More commonly, Bobby is content with covering Neil Diamond (ʽSweet Carolineʼ — finally, a cover that sticks relatively close to the original and, in some ways, transcends it) — and the Beatles (ʽAnd I Love Herʼ, not as good because the song predictably loses much of its uniqueness by being given a full-blown early 1970s soul arrangement), or co-writing, with either Joe Hicks or other Womacks, soft «dance-soul» numbers, such as ʽWoman Got To Have Itʼ, the first single for the album whose most memorable aspect is probably its jumpy bassline, tense, boppy, and fidgety in comparison to the relatively stable groove of the rest of the song. Meanwhile, ʽRuby Deanʼ is notable for some fine acoustic riffage, which goes along fine with harmonica solos and Bobby's melancholic howling.
Still, the most striking song on the album is probably ʽHarry Hippieʼ — written by songwriter Jim Ford. The song acquired additional poignancy two years later, when Bobby's brother, Harry Womack, was killed by his jealous girlfriend, upon which the tune became re-dedicated to him; but the original lyrics seem to have been referring to an abstract-collective Harry, summarizing the artist's feelings towards the hippie stereotype — "I'd like to help a man when he's down / But I can't help him much when he's sleeping on the ground". You can feel Bobby really getting into the spirit here, trying to rub up as much sympathy towards the character as possible, but put it all in a tragic context all the same. For Bobby Womack, who was always careful to walk the thin line between «manufactured, well-paid, stable entertainment» and «artistic recklessness», the song must have been a particularly important manifesto at the time. And its choice for the album's coda has its own meaning — letting us know that Understanding is not that easy to come by if your mental languages differ so much.
I would not rip Understanding out of its context and award it with a much more enthusiastic thumbs up than usual just because it incidentally happened to be more popular than usual. But its spirit burns just as brightly as that of Communication, and together, they represent early 1970s «dance-oriented soul» at its average finest. It isn't «great art», but it is perfectly crafted, meaningful, and highly tasteful entertainment.
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