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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bobby Womack: Safety Zone


1) Everything's Gonna Be Alright; 2) I Wish It Would Rain; 3) Trust Me; 4) Where There's A Will There's A Way; 5) Love Ain't Something You Can Get For Free; 6) Something You Got; 7) Daylight; 8) I Feel A Groove Comin' On.

Ironic title, considering that this was Bobby's first serious plunge into disco waters — the last track is a ferociously non-stop eight-minutes-on-the-floor workout, and ʽEverything's Gonna Be Alrightʼ and ʽWhere There's A Will...ʼ do their best to keep up with the hotness as well. For the first time in his life, alas, it seems like Bobby is giving in to outside pressure, with a loss of face. When it comes to straightforward disco, he has no way of «womackizing» it.

Seriously, ʽI Feel A Groove Comin' Onʼ, despite preceding ʽDisco Infernoʼ for about three years, already sounds like an embarrassing parody on The Trammps (a gruesome conclusion, conside­ring that much of the time, The Trammps themselves sounded like an endless self-parody). Eight minutes of a totally mind-boggling, robotic groove, with one ska-derived brass figure repeated over and over with no extra coloring — my only hypothesis is that this was Bobby's way of snap­ping back, «oh, you want real red hot? I'll give you real red hot, you brainless idiots!» There is an odd surprise — at 6:30 into the song, there is an unexpectedly classy piano break that pushes the song sky high for about one minute, and no wonder: check the liner notes and you will see that the piano player is no less than Herbie Hancock himself (!). A beautiful reward, no doubt, for those who have been patient enough to suffer through the rest of the song, but is it really adequate relative to the overall cruelty?

ʽWhere There's A Will, There's A Wayʼ is actually less embarrassing if you like that sort of jumpy mid-1970s vaudeville (of which Billy Preston was a particular master) — at the very least, it has an intricate, non-trivial brass-pop arrangement that Blood, Sweat & Tears would probably kill for (just the kind of sound they needed to fortify the dance-oriented part of their reputation). And the seven minutes of ʽEverything...ʼ actually try to balance between darker, funkier verses and the lighter, bouncier, more discoish chorus — an interesting, unusual attempt to merge the two facets, but it does not seem to work well: the «seams» are too crude and artificial for the mood transitions to become believable. One minute you are standing in a spooky swamp of wah-wah riffage, faraway ghostly-echoey guitar shrieks and warlike brass blasts, then the next minute you are happily dancing your head off to a merry disco beat — sounds intriguing on paper, per­haps, but not so much in real life.

The remaining half of the album is still occupied by examples of the more traditional Womack sound: highlights include ʽTrust Meʼ, written half a decade ago for Janis Joplin and revisited here under a more modernistic coating — but even so, the plastic synthesizer sound is not enough to wipe out traces of genuine soulfulness — and ʽDaylightʼ, a dance ballad with an ironic flavor, sung by Bobby from the viewpoint of a «nightlife addict» who treats «daylight» as «the only time when I can unwind». Could be hilarious if Bobby didn't succeed in making it sound a little tragic. As for the trademark «oddity number», this time around it is the old Chris Kenner chestnut ʽSomething You Gotʼ, redone as a comical reggae number: too self-consciously cute for its own good, but at least showing that the old style of cerebral gymnastics is still very much alive.

All in all, this round of the battle is still being won by Bobby, but when you start counting tro­phies and casualties, the former only barely exceed the latter. It is clear enough that, at this point, the man finds himself forced to engage in something that he obviously does not like too much, and that it gets harder and harder to find an acceptable compromise between «soul» and «com­merce». The solutions that he offers on Safety Zone — such as merging the dark and the light on the lead-in track, or subtly mocking the values of disco on the lead-off number — betray a con­cealed cry for help and may be read as the Morse code equivalent for «I'm as irritated with this crap as you are, guys and girls», but that does not automatically redeem an album where Herbie Hancock is invited to contribute just one minute of piano playing on a generic eight-minute disco track. Whose idea of a pleasant surprise was that, anyway?

Check "Safety Zone" (MP3) on Amazon

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