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Monday, June 23, 2014

Bill Withers: Still Bill


1) Lonely Town, Lonely Street; 2) Let Me In Your Life; 3) Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?; 4) Use Me; 5) Lean On Me; 6) Kissin' My Love; 7) I Don't Know; 8) Another Day To Run; 9) I Don't Want You On My Mind; 10) Take It All In And Check It All Out.

More than anything, Bill's second album clearly demonstrated that the man's success was not a fluke one — and I certainly do not intend to prove that by adducing the example of ʽLean On Meʼ, which went on to become Bill's greatest commercial hit and probably the song that is most com­monly associated with the man due to ferocious radio rotation, innumerable cover versions, and other what-not. The funniest thing about it is that ʽLean On Meʼ, honestly good soul number as it is, is completely atypical of the album and of Bill's classic artistic personality as a whole. It is a well thought out, understandably manipulative musical remedy, uplifting and not uninteresting from a compositional point of view (especially in how it sews together its personal-sentimental and clap-your-hands-together-anthemic sections) — but there are no other songs like this on the album, and if there were, well, frankly speaking, they would completely eliminate the very reason for Bill Withers' existence. I mean, if you want uplifting gospel-rock, you have just about every­one from the Spinners to Earth, Wind & Fire to Aretha. Come on now.

What is really fascinating about the record is that, even with the near-complete removal of star power (this time, the album was recorded and produced by a bunch of relative unknowns), it still sounds fabulous and is full to the brim of perfectly written and convincingly played out little mu­sical «character studies». Still Bill is a perfect title, since Withers usually impersonates the same type of character here — an unbearably sensitive, touchy, jealous, paranoid, sarcastic guy who would love to enjoy life but feels like it's too much of a bitch to let him enjoy it. His philosophy is perfectly summarized in the first lines of ʽAnother Day To Runʼ: "If you don't look into your mind / And find out what you're running from / Tomorrow might just be another day to run". And he follows that philosophy to a tee — most of the album involves prying into his own mind and trying to find out what it is that he's running from.

Paranoia as the ruling force of the record is immediately established in the very first notes — when the acoustic rhythm, the electric lead, and the funky bass guitar all play the same «shaky» syncopated melody to stress the idea of uncertainty and insecurity. The Bee Gees, too, would later have a song about «Big City Stress» opening an album that praised the glamorous rhythms of the big city, but the difference is that people could enjoy the glam of Bee Gees' disco without smelling its dangerous underside, whereas Withers, writing songs that you can dance to, puts that underside up front — lyrically, musically, vocally ʽLonely Town, Lonely Streetʼ is a blinking warning, a groove that pulsates with nervous tension of the ʽGimme Shelterʼ variety.

Then there are some nifty tunes about jealousy and separation. ʽWho Is He (And What Is He To You)?ʼ is a small masterpiece of unresolved suspense, matching its threatening bass and lead lines to fit Bill's reserved, but on-the-brink vocal delivery, and the lyrics may just be the very best discrete psychological description of a jealous lover, peppered with classy lines like "you're too much for one man, but not enough for two". ʽUse Meʼ (which was the second single and was far more representative of the album's sound than ʽLean On Meʼ) is driven by a Stevie Wonder-wor­thy clavinet riff that «grumbles» its way through just like Bill himself grumbles about how "all you do is use me" — before admitting, grudgingly, that he doesn't mind.

Eventually, though, the lovers do separate, and then we have ʽI Don't Want You On My Mindʼ, trotting along at a mind-numbing tempo and punctuated by «ugly» wah-wah wails, illustrating brain pulsations: he doesn't want you on his mind all the time, but, of course, this is exactly what he has on his mind all the time. The song proper ends at around the three minute mark, but is then followed with a coda that could illustrate the painful process of trying to clear out the protago­nist's mind — unfortunately, it fades out too quickly to let us know how successful he was.

There is a bunch of more conventional songs here as well (the rather syrupy ballad ʽLet Me In Your Lifeʼ; the somewhat-too-happy funk-pop number ʽKissin' My Loveʼ), but they are not with­out their own hooks, either, and, ultimately, as much as I hate these «whole world is silly» rants, in this case I do feel like ʽLean On Meʼ is the weakest song on the album, and if it happens to be the only thing you know about Bill Withers, be sure not to jump to conclusions — that would be a bit like judging the Beatles on the strength of ʽYesterdayʼ (certainly not a «weak» song, but just imagine a "oh, so that's what those Beatles sound like" kind of reaction!). Instead, just get the whole album and brace yourself for Mr. Withers' fascinating world of wit, pain, and psycholo­gism on the dangerous edge of insanity. One more thumbs up like this and you'd really start to wonder how many girlfriends this individual has buried in his backyard.

Check "Still Bill" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Still Bill" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. it is a wonderful record. though you rarely hear it talked about in the way that records like "superfly" and "what's going on" are talked about. i think what you said in the previous review is absolutely right: critics don't really know what to DO with bill. you can't pigeonhole him-- he's not a polemicist like curtis, not a lover like al green... he's got pieces of these identities, sure, but he's still bill, first and foremost. i think that, song for song, this record stacks up with just about any contemporary record by a black musician... i think his worldview is much more nuanced and sophisticated than, say, marvin gaye's, even if the arrangements here aren't quite as relevatory as those on "what's goin on." and if "let me into your life" or "lean on me" must be considered weak spots, well... jeez, at least they're songs, and not terrible poetry, a la "save the children." great review, as always, george.