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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bobby Womack: I Don't Know What The World Is Coming To

BOBBY WOMACK: I DON'T KNOW WHAT THE WORLD IS COMING TO (1975)

1) Interlude No. 1 / I Don't Know; 2) Superstar; 3) If You Want My Love, Put Something Down On It; 4) Git It; 5) What's Your World; 6) Check It Out; 7) Interlude No. 2; 8) Jealous Love; 9) It's All Over Now; 10) Yes, Jesus Loves Me.

Yes indeed, it is hard to tell what the world is coming to if it no longer agrees to buy mass quan­tities of Bobby Womack records. This one completely fell through the floor — the lead single ʽCheck It Outʼ barely scraped the charts, and its follow-up, a revised (in fact, completely reinven­ted, which might have added to the problem) take on ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, missed them complete­ly. The LP itself also fared poorly, and the most disappointing thing about it was that you couldn't even accuse Bobby of feeling «out of time» — on the contrary, the record clearly pays attention to ongoing trends, incorporating more electronics and tighter dance beats than ever before. All in all, Bobby makes it clear that he is ready to undergo a transition to disco. So why the decline in popularity? How come he got outsold by the Bee Gees on this market, anyway?

Most likely, the album simply fell through the cracks. At his best, Bobby was a master of the friendly funky groove and the soulful vocal tear. But the more he stoops to the new demands of the time, the less impressive the groove is, and the less space is left for the soulfulness. A succes­­ful disco hit needs a major hookline, and just how many major hooklines are there on these parti­cular songs? ʽCheck It Outʼ features a pleasant enough four-note brass / guitar riff as its main point of attraction, but it has neither sufficient cockiness for the boys, nor the required sexiness for the girls. The thing is, Mr. Womack's soul is still dwelling in the «gallant Sixties», and the thrills that he offers here for listeners in 1975 are too obsolete to properly thrill — in fact, proper­ly titillate — their gut feelings. In other words, ʽCheck It Outʼ is no ʽYou Should Be Dancingʼ when it comes to really getting people up on their feet in a way they've never been gotten up be­fore. The old funk school is getting dusty.

Re-evaluated forty years after the fact, though, I Don't Know What The World Is Coming To seems to be just another decent, not-too-special Womack record. Other than the quickened tem­pos, everything seems to be in place: passionate vocals, clever guitar licks, unusual arranging ideas, tight backing band. The title track, for instance, has a thoroughly cool twin set of guitar lead lines trailing through all of its duration — a «clean» «woman tone», playing a melodic part all based on sustained humming notes, and a distorted, frenzied, psychedelic guitar explosion. Unfortunately, they are not separated into separate channels and are kept well below Bobby's vocals in the mix: as usual, the man is just too humble to let the guitar play a distinctive part, not even if one of the players on the track is Glen Coins from Parliament/Funkadelic.

On Side B, the same double-tracking trick is repeated on ʽWhat's Your Worldʼ, another classy groove where the tension is further driven up by the mean bassline which, at about 3:14 into the song, explodes in a murky sea of apocalyptic fuzz, then, a minute later, comes back to its senses, then, towards the fade-out, does it again. It's the little things like that — totally superfluous from a general point of view — that add spice to the otherwise plain, not-too-memorable grooves and show that Bobby's will to hunt for new sounds was hardly diminished. The problem is, you, the listener, likewise, have to sniff that will out; sometimes only an intent, thoroughly focused listen in headphones will bring out the complexity of the arrangements.

And there are misfires, too. The new version of ʽIt's All Over Nowʼ, for instance, is a mess; where Bobby's previous self-reinventions always preserved the gist of the tune, this particular one is clearly self-referential, and could only work as an extra coda to the original — Bobby's duet with Bill Withers centers on endless re-runs of the chorus and chaotic vocalizing: you are offered three minutes of cheerful dance-centered insanity without a good understanding of what all the hoopla is about. The only thing sillier than recording this track was the attempt to release it as an official single — for whom?

It is also a little strange to sit through a whole album of mostly high-powered dance music, lightly interspersed with a few ballads, only to have it end on a slow, reverential note with a gospel num­ber: ʽYes, Jesus Loves Meʼ seems like a hasty toss-off, almost like an instantaneous apology to the Lord for over-indulging in «pleasures of the flesh» on the rest of the record (musically more than lyrically), and the gospel genre is not really tailor-made for Bobby's stylistics.

But in all honesty, that's just nitpicking. It would be all too easy to say that the album finds Bob­by in a directionless state of confusion, and use its very title for an indirect confirmation — in reality, I don't feel any confusion, and, for what it's worth, serious soul artists have always com­plained about the state of the world, regardless of the actual historical context (which is why so much of their stuff sounds timeless, applicable to any epoch). It is really quite a self-assured, so­lid recording in its own right — its only serious «flaw» being in that it tries to give the people what they want, the way they want it, but fails, because it is still delivered the way the author wants it. Or something like that, anyway.

Check "I Don't Know What The World Is Coming To" (MP3) on Amazon

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