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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bobby Womack: Home Is Where The Heart Is


1) Home Is Where The Heart Is; 2) Just A Little Bit Salty; 3) Standing In The Safety Zone; 4) One More Chance On Love; 5) How Long; 6) I Could Never Be Satisfied; 7) Something For My Head; 8) A Change Is Gonna Come; 9) We've Only Just Begun.

Although Bobby's «country-western debacle» cost him his contract with United Artists, he did deliver the album, so all they could do in the end was sell him out to a different label — which they did, and Bobby found himself transferred to Columbia. Not a particularly shabby deal, either, but now that he discovered that they could trade him around as much as they wanted to, until he ended up on some totally God-forsaken label, he had to come around to his senses and work more carefully. Consequently, Home Is Where The Heart Is drops all crazy pretense and returns us to the safe, commercial formula of Safety Zone.

Few things, good or bad, could be stated about this record. It has a significant disco quota to fill (title track; ʽSomething For My Headʼ; most importantly, the mind-melting groove of ʽStanding In The Safety Zoneʼ), but it is not gruesomely dominated by disco, preserving plenty of space for older style funk, R&B and balladry as well. Unfortunately, the production mostly bows down to the requirements of its time, smoothing and streamlining the sound until all of Bobby's backing band begins to sound like a mere background canvas for the vocal hooks (if they are present) or the vocal atmosphere (in case of ballads that do not require hookpower).

Bobby's guitar is the only instrument that consistently shows signs of life, but there are so many additional players that his signature licks, no matter how inspired, are not enough to properly tilt the balance. It is not at all likely that you will remember ʽSafety Zoneʼ as «that one song with some classy wailing guitar» on it — more likely, it will simply be «that lengthy disco vamp, all pinned to just a couple of bars of melody». On the other hand, the guitar bits (as well as a sax part that sounds as if that instrument, too, was trying to procure itself some individuality) at least add a pinch of replay value, so it is one of those examples of «semi-successfully working from within the formula» that guarantees itself at least some fans even after quite a while.

Still, the only memorable song on the entire first side for me is Eddie Hinton's ʽJust A Little Bit Saltyʼ, and only because it manages a great vocal build-up from verse to chorus, with the first line of the chorus delivered by Bobby with almost percussive precision (for that matter, the late Eddie Hinton remains quite an underrated sessionist and songwriter from the Muscle Shoals team). There is some injustice, I believe, in that the song only runs for three minutes where a flabby, mushy ballad like ʽOne More Chance On Loveʼ drags on for almost seven (largely due to Bobby's decision to have a pseudo-improvised «scat duet» midway through with his piano player, all of which sounds quite forced and artificial).

The second side works better, mainly since it is dominated by two covers of classics — finally, not a moment soon, Bobby decides to cover his beloved mentor's magnum opus (ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ), and then immediately follows it up with ʽWe've Only Just Begunʼ, a duet with some unknown lady who sure is no Karen Carpenter, but carries out her duties well enough. I am not sure, however, whether we should be happy or sad about both of these songs performed in a very straightforward manner, without any of Bobby's usual experimental trimmings. I mean, it is understandable if he worshipped ʽA Change Is Gonna Comeʼ like a sacred object to the point of not wanting to change anything, and he nails its essence as understandingly and lovingly as Sam did in his time, but what do we get out of this? Not to mention that, with all of its sociopolitical connotations, the song was perfect for 1964, but not necessarily so by 1976, when racial tension in the US had already moved to a different level — at any rate, it does feel a little weird to have Sam's song, performed so very close to the original, sitting on the same album with red-hot disco vamps, even when you look at it from a forty-years-later perspective.

That said, the record has to be set straight: a few comments that I have encountered referred to the Columbia transfer as having a negative effect on Bobby's artistry — just put it all in context, and it is clear that it is not the record label, but the overall musical environment, that has to be held responsible. The transition to a smoother, more dance-oriented, empty-headed style, leaving less and less space to create, had already begun circa 1974, and the «mad» country-western record only aggravated the situation: it was a reckless go-out-and-get-drunk move after a week of point­less, depressing toil in the office, and in the end, it cost Bobby whatever still remained of his creative freedom and inspiration. But since the slide was gradual, Home Is Where The Heart Is is still quite listenable, and in spots, quite lovable (unfortunately, none of these spots were written by Bobby himself — yet another sign that things were not going in the right direction).

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