BILL WITHERS: MAKING MUSIC (1975)
1) I Wish You Well; 2) The Best You Can; 3) Make Love To Your Mind; 4) I Love You Dawn; 5) She's Lonely; 6) Sometimes A Song; 7) Paint Your Pretty Picture; 8) Family Table; 9) Don't You Want To Stay; 10) Hello Like Before.
So Sussex Records eventually folded, and Bill found himself in the arms of Columbia. Without some serious digging, it is hard to understand whether this very fact led to a change in sound or if, as usual, it was all just part of the global trend to adapt or survive. The fact is, Making Music is an album that is even more smooth, slick, glossed-out than +'Justments, and, consequently, is easier to categorize as a «typical mid-Seventies R&B album», which is not really what Bill Withers was about in the first place. Some of the songs are still in the orchestrated folk-pop ballpark, but they are getting uncomfortably sentimental and sappy — alcoholics, jealous lovers, and prodigal fathers are more or less out of the picture, replaced by romantics, moody lovers, and grateful descendants. We have an all-too-happy Bill Withers here, and that doesn't spell good.
The songs are still mostly enjoyable — the problem is that they draw much of their strength from being too repetitive. The slow, lazy funk groove of ʽMake Love To Your Mindʼ, combining wah-wah guitar, «cool» bubbly synthesizers, and proto-disco strings, is really all about making us enjoy and wallow in the awesomeness of the basic message: "before I make love to your body / I wanna make love to your mind", a refrain repeated so frequently that you are almost tempted to look for some extra depth in it. But there's no particular depth, just a quirky turn of phrase that Bill thought useful and attractive. It is, but not for six minutes.
There is nothing wrong as such with the lush pastoral ballad ʽPaint Your Pretty Pictureʼ, either, but exactly how many times do we need to hear that the protagonist is going to "paint your pretty picture with a song"? By the fourth minute, the repetition begins to border on parody, and there's still two more to go. Same applies to ʽShe's Lonelyʼ, a song that could be described as «anti-feminist»: "what she's doin' does some good", Bill admits, "but she lonely, but she lonely, she lonely, but she lonely". Would it have hurt to work on that chorus a little more? Because the song is really good — just way too repetitive.
The biggest departure from the old sound is on ʽFamily Tableʼ, a song with a nostalgic message taken from the same box as ʽGrandma's Handsʼ (but much flatter, lyrics-wise) but a melody that pushes Withers very close to disco, if not melodically, then at least in terms of all-out-danceable atmosphere. Again, it's not a bad tune at all — catchy, fun, probably still quite sincere — but to say that it downplays Bill's talents would be an understatement, since, other than the catchy vocal hook in the chorus, it leaves no space for any talent whatsoever.
Closest thing to a «classic» here would probably be ʽSometimes A Songʼ, which delivers the leanest, meanest groove on the album — I don't know whether the bass player is James Jamerson or Louis Johnson, since they are both credited in the notes, but whoever it is, thanks for that killer rockin' bass line that adds gruff seriousness to Bill's message. If Bill does not convince you that a good song is a real bitch, that bass line will. Of course, it is also a song that could have been written by anybody — from Curtis Mayfield to Isaac Hayes to even Billy Preston — but by 1975, it was clear that Bill had nothing against «streamlining» his musicmaking, and this here is sort of a cut-off point beyond which only serious lovers of solid, but «faceless» R&B are welcome, not those who welcome unique manners of artistic self-expression. At the very least, an album like Making Music should never serve as your introduction to Bill Withers, since there is very little Bill Withers here to introduce.