BILL WITHERS: MENAGERIE (1977)
1) Lovely Day; 2) I Want To Spend The Night; 3) Lovely Night For Dancing; 4) Then You Smile At Me; 5) She Wants To (Get On Down); 6) It Ain't Because Of Me Baby; 7) Tender Things; 8) Wintertime; 9) Let Me Be The One You Need; 10) Rosie.
Strangely, even though this album is even more upbeat, sunny, and dance-oriented than Naked & Warm, it seems to produce an overall stronger impression. Maybe it is because of consistency and coherence — this time around, Bill is not even beginning to pretend that he still has any of that old «dark streak» left in him, not to mention that there is no ʽCity Of The Angelsʼ anywhere in sight, or any other attempts to carve an «art» sound out of the basics of the California dance scene. This time around, it's all about romance, chivalry, happiness, and smooth body music in the disco paradigm — soothing entertainment to relieve you of your troubles, not to remind you of your troubles. Meet Bill Withers, next in line for the title of The Ladies' Man.
The best news for miles around is that the album begins with ʽLovely Dayʼ — incidentally, one of the best «happy-sunny» R&B grooves of the decade, pulled up by the hair into the stratosphere by Bill's ability to hold one note (the right note, of course!) for what seems like an eternity, while his backup singers have enough time to pull in and out several times. It is really a simple trick, and it eclipses the rest of the song (which is actually quite commendable for its well-thought out funky bassline at least), but without the trick, we would not find ourselves coming back to it for any special reason. Whatever be, the song manages to ooze happiness without exaggerating it — the arrangement is fairly minimalistic, and Bill sings everything, including the extended notes, in an easy, relaxed, self-controlled manner, implying that you don't really need to jump out of your pants in order to convey that happy feel. But you do need technique and discipline.
The rest of the album never quite lives up to the subtle punch of the opener, but the opener sets up the mood, locks it shut, and somehow ensures that the record stays listenable and non-irritating right to the very end. Oddly, it is the funkiest / disco-est numbers that stay around for the longest time, probably because of all the repetition in the grooves — I wouldn't ever want to speak of ʽShe Wants To (Get On Down)ʼ as a dance-pop masterpiece, but the call-and-response vocal hook is infectious against my will, as is the "get up and dance with me" exhortation on ʽLovely Night For Dancingʼ (yes, there is a lot of invitations to dance throughout the album — and who'd be surprised, with Saturday Night Fever coming 'round the bend at any time?).
On the other hand, there is no need to pretend, either, that, apart from ʽLovely Dayʼ, Menagerie has any reason to be singled out of a swarm of similar R&B products on the mid-1970s market. The dance numbers are still undermined by Bill's «softness» and «gentlemanliness» (next to the «ruffian sound» of Chic, for instance), and the ballads... well, even the previously unissued demo version of ʽRosieʼ, now appended to the CD version of the album, with just Bill and his piano, fails to move me beyond the expectably-predictable «niceness», so when it comes to full arrangements, things get worse — Bill used minimal arrangements on most of his masterpieces, and most of the string and harmony parts on songs like ʽLet Me Be The One You Needʼ suffer from corny melodic moves, too much syrup, and too much formula.
In the end, while this is not a «thumbs down» record per se (the presence of ʽLovely Dayʼ and the absence of a ʽCity Of The Angelsʼ equivalent guarantees some neutrality), neither is it a miraculous «return to form» as one could conclude from reading the occasional happy-faced review. Then again, not being particularly familiar with the story of Bill's personal life (I only know that 1976 was the year of his second and happiest marriage), I am quite willing to suggest that the man was simply playing the honesty card — a well-balanced, content, peaceful personal life, with all the demons exorcised and crucified, might be translatable to a musical record like Menagerie with the utmost sincerity. Good for him — Marvin Gaye might have had a far more exciting musical career from beginning to end, but nobody in one's right mind should wish anybody else the life of a Marvin Gaye rather than that of a Bill Withers, right?