BILL WITHERS: 'BOUT LOVE (1979)
1) All Because Of You; 2) Dedicated To You My Love; 3) Don't It Make It Better; 4) You Got The Stuff; 5) Look To Each Other For Love; 6) Love; 7) Love Is; 8) Memories Are That Way.
This relatively uninspiring sequel to Menagerie was produced by Paul Smith, a legendary jazz pianist mostly known for accompanying Ella Fitzgerald; he also co-wrote several of the songs and played on all the recordings. If there ever was a waste of talent, though, that must be it, because 'Bout Love has nothing to do with classic jazz and everything with generic, «tepid» R&B: no disco as such, just another bunch of friendly, danceable, and almost completely interchangeable grooves that leave no lasting impression whatsoever.
Unfortunately, this time around there is no ʽLovely Dayʼ to redeem the album with at least a single unbeatable hook, and not even a ʽShe Wants To (Get On Down)ʼ to add frenzied energy: indeed, I would rather welcome a fast, tight, determined disco-rocker than have to listen to these happy, toothless, family-friendly grooves one after another. ʽYou Got The Stuffʼ, with a funky rhythm pattern, probably comes the closest to satisfying the desire for a bit of grit, but it more or less makes its point over the first thirty seconds, and then just goes on grooving without any development — if it were a live funk jam, that'd be one thing, but in this context the musicians just stick to the groove and refuse to let go of the pre-arranged patterns. And where the heck is Paul Smith and his piano chops? He is, indeed, co-credited, but it is not highly likely that this is the kind of arrangement he would have offered to Ella.
Are the songs catchy? Perhaps. As on his previous two or three albums, the choruses are so repetitive that all these "high as the birds that fly above the clouds..." (ʽAll Because Of Youʼ) and "love is caring, love is needing..." (ʽLove Isʼ) will end up sticking to your brains after a few listens. But it is a boring kind of catchiness: try as the man might, he just isn't able to come up with any outstanding take on the virtues of love. As supercool as he was when exposing the underbelly of the human soul, Bill Withers as a Preacher of Goodness continues to be just another smiling face in the crowd. It is a pleasant, likeable, friendly face alright — you know that guy on the front sleeve will be a gas to hang out with, since that smile don't lie — but it doesn't come equipped with any wonderful musical ideas.
As usual, there is at least one song per album to offer a brief reminder of the old Bill Withers: this time, it is the album closer, ʽMemories Are That Wayʼ, a slow, moody ballad with inarguably the best vocal performance from the man — infused with melancholia and sadness, peppered with drawn-out, painfully soaring notes, and actually featuring some discernible piano playing from Paul Smith for a change. It is completely incompatible with the rest of the album — an «afterparty» song, to be savored for last once the basic club audiences have all gone home and the entertainment is over — and, interestingly enough, it is the only song here credited solely to Bill, as if he surreptitiously wanted to lay at least a part of the blame on the shoulders of his co-writers, but decided to save up the best song completely for himself.
All in all, ʽMemories Are That Wayʼ is definitely worth salvaging, and perhaps one or two of the tighter grooves here, such as ʽYou Got The Stuffʼ, might be worth including on compilations for historical purposes, but on the whole, 'Bout Love drops one notch below Menagerie in quality. No thumbs down, what with everything being so innocent and harmless, but only really recommendable for fans of standardized 1970s dance music, and maybe also for that elusive subcategory of «shiny happy people» who might want to mind-meld with Bill on that one.