Old/New Discogs: Bill Withers

Welcome to Old/New Discogs. I enjoyed writing my Old/New Album series so much last year that I wanted to do it again but add a new component to it. Rather than reviewing individual albums from an assortment of artists, I’m going to look at selected discographies of specific artists and write about them every couple months.

billwithersI’m starting with Bill Withers. Withers has written some of the most well-known pop songs from the ’70s but there is a really good chance you don’t know his name. His hits outgrew his own fame, and from the personal perspective of Withers, that’s a good thing. He was a man that never got caught up in the fame game. He entered the recording business as an old man compared to his contemporaries in pop and soul music (he recorded his first album at the age of 32) and kept his day job while doing so, in case his music didn’t catch on.

Thankfully, it did catch on, and he went on to release eight studio albums and one live album before closing up shop on his music career and stepping out of the spotlight completely. If you’re interested in a bit more of his personal story, I’d highly recommend the documentary Still Bill (available on Hulu Plus, about an hour and fifteen minutes long). It’s a great look into his work, lots of cool archival footage and a ton of interview footage of Withers right around his 70th birthday.

Withers became a star not because of a born-to-perform personality but rather because his music is timeless, accessible and emotional. “Ain’t No Sunshine” is as heartbreaking today as it was in 1971 and those feelings resonate with listeners. His entire canon of work is full of songs that are as emotional and deeply moving as his most popular.

I’m only covering his first six albums, so let’s start at the beginning.

Just As I Am (1971)

justasiamI can recall few debut albums with such distinct soul. Withers immediately distinguishes himself from his contemporaries with his unique blend of Southern-front-porch acoustic guitar underneath a lot of great, warm vocals.

There are a few covers, like Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” (later popularized by Harry Nilsson) and the Beatles “Let It Be.” The Beatles cover gets a shrug, but “Everybody’s Talkin’” is miles away from the wavy acoustic patterns of the original and adds a powerful rock and blues element to it.

The real power in this album are Withers’ originals. “Harlem,” “Hope She’ll Be Happier,” and “Grandma’s Hands” (among others) run the gamut of genres, but all have this undercurrent of real soulful singing. Withers’ voice is the coziest of warm blankets and his performance adds so much to this album.

In terms of the wide associations one can have with the word “soul,” he definitely falls closer to Sam Cooke than Al Green. Withers has no gimmick that sells his voice, and there isn’t any one thing that you could identify by “he’s the ‘falsetto guy’” (like you could with Curtis Mayfield or Al Green) or the “bass guy” (like Barry White) or the “____ guy.” His voice is just a steady constant. It sounds like the warm pop you hear when a needle falls on a record.

The music is not bad by any means, but without Withers it would fall flat in a lot of places. There are exceptions, like “Harlem” and “Everybody’s Talkin,’” but a lot of it is very reminiscent of Booker T. & The M.G.’s instrumental albums. Booker T. Jones was the producer, and his organ playing is evident in many places, along with drums of Al Jackson, Jr. and the bass of Donald “Duck” Dunn, both holdovers from the M.G.’s.

I’m not the biggest fan of The M.G.’s; I’m more of a casual observer than a full on fan. So with someone else’s vocals, this album would probably get brushed aside. But thanks to Bill, this one is a keeper.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Harlem
  2. Ain’t No Sunshine
  3. Hope She’ll Be Happier

Still Bill (1972)

stillbillThis is the album where Withers makes the biggest splash. His biggest hits live here and most aspects of the record are firing on all cylinders.

Still Bill is immediately funkier than Just As I Am. Just so much more groove right from the start. This is evident all over, but even from the first strummed chords of “Lonely Town, Lonely Street” that form the basis for that bent guitar string lick, this record emanates a different feel than Just As I Am. Withers has clearly matured, both lyrically and musically.

The Booker T. Jones organ tone is thankfully gone from this album, and it’s replaced with subtle funk. “Lonely Town, Lonely Street,” “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” and “Use Me” urge the listener to bop their head along with the grooves. Other songs also feature that funky “wocka-chicka-wocka-chicka” guitar associated with blaxploitation music.

One of the things I love about Withers is that he manages to create a unique vision of a genre that really came to life and took hold in the ’70s. Withers softens the edges of funk and sharpens the edges of soul and his blend of these is such a perfect mix on this record. “Use Me” is one of my favorite songs ever because it hits that sweet spot right between funk and soul, where the backbone of the song is actually a strummed acoustic guitar. And then it’s thrown underneath this fantastic Fender Rhodes-sounding riff that adds a measured amount of stank to the proceedings. Withers sounds calculated in his vocals, not getting caught by the potential weirdness inherent in funk music but letting the soulfulness shine through. “Use Me” is the record’s crowning achievement.

This song and others signify a real loss of innocence on this record. Just As I Am seemed sweet, whereas Still Bill is introducing to a much more jaded Bill. “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?” is the realization of infidelity, “I Don’t Want You On My Mind” is a lamentation about unrequited love and even the album closer, “Take It All In And Check It all Out,” warns against hastily proselytizing one’s viewpoint. Even a song like “Let Me In Your Life” is a plea to a partner to leave the emotional remnants of a past relationship behind. This is a man pleading to his love but this is some grown-up love here; Withers isn’t singing about young romance anymore.

Sure, there are some upbeat tunes, but while a less confident singer would steer these songs off the road into treacle, Withers keeps them real and grounded. “Lean On Me” is a little sugary, but I think that’s due to cultural associations with the song that have cannibalized the feeling of the original. If you could listen to Withers sing “Lean On Me” without any prior knowledge of the various covers (Club Nouveau wins for Worst Treatment That Everybody Probably Thinks Of First, why someone would “reggae”-fy this gorgeous tune is beyond me), it becomes this really beautiful ballad extolling the virtue of community and how much we need those around us. Again, Withers is the grounded lighthouse in the storm of what could’ve made this song terrible.

I highly recommend this album. A fantastic blend of so many good sounds that ends up sounding timeless.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Use Me
  2. Who Is He (And What Is He To You?)
  3. Lonely Town, Lonely Street

+‘Justments (1974)

justmentsOn first listen, this album felt pretty mellow compared to Still Bill. There wasn’t anything as single/radio-ready as “Use Me,” and I think that initially made me think the whole thing was going to be a snoozer.

However, after a good few listens, my opinion of the album absolutely improved. This one just needs to simmer a little. Even after as many listens as I’ve given it, I feel like as long as I pull it out and give it a spin every few weeks or months, I’ll love it even more.

Not sure why; maybe it actually does deliver like Still Bill does, just with a different specific feel. Still Bill had some real funk to it, with tunes that made me want to dance and get out my electric guitar to play along. It’s switched on +’Justments. The ballads stop me in my tracks and the “funkiest” song on the album, the closer “Railroad Man,” is six and a half minutes of fluff that could’ve been lopped off the end of the record. It’s the mellow feel that really sunk in well for me.

“You” and “Green Grass” both have a bit of funk to them, but not anywhere near the funk on Still Bill. But this relaxed feeling adds a lot to these tunes, making them sound like something you’d hear on Sesame Street during its golden years.

This all culminates in my favorite song on the record, “Heartbreak Road.” There is something about the rhythm and tempo of this song; the first few times I heard it, I kept thinking it should be faster. But that’s not an error of the musicians or of the recording, rather that’s the distinct feeling laid down by the musicians. There is a meandering feel to the rhythm, with the bass and drums in this very delicate race to see who can fall back behind the actual beat the most without totally screwing up the rhythm. That slow-going feel is perfect, because this is a song about hope and working through the difficulties of lost love to find something new and better. A song about recovering from heartbreak doesn’t need to be a fast-paced ordeal. Healing takes time, and that feeling is perfectly crystallized in this tune.

Notably, this is the first album I’ve reviewed in over a year that I’ve had on vinyl, so I was able to listen to this in a new format and environment. I enjoyed that type of experience quite a bit, and I think the warm sound of this particular vinyl lent so much to the mellow feel of the album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Heartbreak Road
  2. Green Grass
  3. You

Making Music (1975)

makingmusicThe first five seconds of this album are certainly misleading. It begins quietly, and I didn’t even catch it the first few times through. But there is a count off in the studio where you can hear Withers doing a vocal adlib before the big strings come in. There is this organic, soulful, communal feel in those five seconds. It might be my favorite five seconds on the album, because most of what comes after has a bit of a middling tone. I used to lump all the albums post-Still Bill together, like they had the same forgettable feel with nothing as memorable as Withers’ first two albums. That notion didn’t hold at all with +‘Justments, but it does with Making Music.

Where the last three albums all had at least a cohesive thread, this one kind of shoots off in all different directions and doesn’t land on anything definitive. Musically, this is a pretty heavy continuation of +’Justments, with Withers headed towards more flowery string arrangements and anthemic sounds and further away from the simple soul sound that anchored his earliest work. This album is really the turning point in Withers discography, showing his headed full-on towards the sugary ballads that characterize his last couple albums.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on the music you enjoy listening to. I personally prefer the albums that led to this one, but if you like the mid-late ’70s overwrought love ballads, you could do a lot worse than Bill Withers. One thing that is constant in all his records, and in full effect here, is his beautiful voice. There is so much passion that he puts into his words, and each ballad ends up sounding like a plea for love that no one could deny. His ballads aren’t fun, but they sure are effective. Withers hits exactly the tone I think he’s going for and does it with a voice better than most from this era.

But for my money, this is the worst record I’ve come to in the discography. Nothing goes anywhere except the ballads, and the only place they go is too far. Too syrupy, too melodramatic, and the non-ballad stuff is not enough. Not funky enough, not happy enough.

However, there are a few funky grooves on this record, but the best, by far, is “Don’t You Want To Stay?” This isn’t the tightest song (the string arrangement tags are a little over the top and could’ve been cut in my opinion), but the bass/keyboard line just grooves for days. To complement, it’s got a fantastic drum rhythm that keeps your head bobbing. While this is my favorite song, it still suffers a bit from the middling tone that plagues this record. It’s a good song that blows the rest of the songs away, but still could’ve been better with a tighter arrangement and more focused delivery.

Clearly, this record isn’t my favorite.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Don’t You Want To Stay?
  2. Family Table
  3. I Wish You Well

Naked & Warm (1976)

nakedandwarmThere isn’t a lot that distinguishes Naked & Warm from its predecessor, Making Music, and that’s a bummer. Withers made a jump to a different label in between Still Bill and +’Justments and with the politics associated with such a move, it’s hard not to attribute the future lack of quality to that jump. Naked & Warm follows the trend hinted at with +’Justments and reinforced by Making Music, with lackluster songs and the only interesting thing being Withers’ voice. Even that is losing its punch here though. There just isn’t any drive, no yearning force that pulls you in as a listener as there was in his earlier work.

I wonder if Withers’ got burnt out or lost inspiration. There are only eight tracks on this record, and one of them is a 10-minute tune that is five minutes too long. The rest all just blur together. Even one of my favorite songs, “If I Didn’t Mean You Well,” shoots for an upbeat, happy sound and ends up hitting the target around cheesy.

I wish I had more to say about this one, but compared to the rest of this selected discography, Naked & Warm is perfectly forgettable. Its sheer anemia is the one thing that can distinguish it among Withers’ other albums.

Top 3 Tunes:
  1. Where You Are
  2. Close To Me
  3. If I Didn’t Mean You Well

Menagerie (1977)

menagerieI’m happy to report we’re heading out on a high note. Menagerie might not be as high of a note as Withers’ first few, but this is absolutely an improvement over the last two. There is a distinct feeling that Withers’ got his mojo back for this album. There are more good songs than bad ones, and even the bad ones make more of an impression than the bad songs on his previous albums.

There are places on here where it sounds like Withers’ decided to dive headlong into the popular music du jour and there is a disco influence that permeates this record. That’s not to say he goes full disco, like Curtis Mayfield did with Do It All Night. There is a good use of the disco feeling, mixed with all the funkiness Withers’ had been playing with since Still Bill. “Then You Smile At Me” has a very Sly Stone-inspired tag at the very end of the song, just one example of the weird mix of disco and funk he employed for Menagerie.

This blend is used to greatest effect on “Lovely Night For Dancing.” I love this tune. It’s got such a cool mix between the sexiness of the verse to the straight up funk of the hook, thanks in large part to the interplay between the bass and the keys. This song does fall into the trap of being a bit too long, clocking in at almost six minutes, but considering how cool the genre-bending is here, it’s forgiven. This song is a great example of what I think Withers was probably shooting for with his last two albums and just failed to realized until Menagerie.

For better or for worse, there is a distinctly less introspective feeling in Withers’ lyrics on this album. “Rosie” is like a lyrical, spiritual sequel to “Ain’t No Sunshine” but that’s about as deep as this record goes. The rest of it is as thematically breezy as the bossa nova rhythms found on tunes like “I Want To Spend The Night” and “Tender Things” (incredibly similar songs, I’m actually surprised they both made it on to the same record).

And then you’ve got “Lovely Day,” which was ultimately Withers’ last big hit, even though he released two records after this one. “Lovely Day” is as airy as you get, both musically and thematically. It’s a really sweet song but it’s bolstered by this pretty complex and groovy bass line throughout which really elevates the tune. And the chorus, come on. Each chorus, Withers hit this 16-beat note with ease, and then in the last chorus he doubles it to nearly 32 beats (he holds the note for 18 seconds in his chest voice). I honestly have no idea how you’d have pipes to do that but clearly he’s got them. Great tune.

What’s separates this album from the last couple is that most of the songs here have a really distinct sound. This album has a very clear identity while the last few are very muddled. It just sounds more confident, more assured and everything gels better than it had before. This is a great addition in the Bill Withers discography.

Top 3 Tunes:
  1. Lovely Day
  2. Lovely Night For Dancing
  3. Wintertime

Album Ranking:

  1. Still Bill
  2. +Justments
  3. Menagerie
  4. Just As I Am
  5. Making Music
  6. Naked & Warm
Top 10 Tunes:
  1. Use Me
  2. Heartbreak Road
  3. Harlem
  4. Ain’t No Sunshine
  5. Lovely Day
  6. Stories
  7. Green Grass
  8. Hope She’ll Be Happier
  9. Who Is He (And What Is He To You)?
  10. Lean On Me

Final thoughts:

I was surprised how much I ended up liking +‘Justments, and especially its tune “Heartbreak Road.” If the tune “Use Me” wasn’t such an immense tower of power, “Heartbreak Road” would absolutely be taking the throne as my favorite Bill Withers song ever.

In the context of the first half of the ’70s, Withers is a standout artist who made really unique soul music, finding his own sonic identity that was very clearly different than his contemporaries. When examined strictly within the vacuum of his own work, I began to see the peaks and valleys of his artistry. Each album felt fairly cohesive, and each had its own specific feel. If you only know Withers’ big hits, I’d really recommend diving a bit deeper into his catalog.

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