Tag Archives: Old/New Discogs

Old/New Discogs: Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin have sat in the upper echelon of modern Western music for over 40 years now. When I think of rock music, I think of Led Zeppelin.

ledzep

They are consistently referenced as one of the fundamental originators of heavy metal, which I find interesting having now listened through their biggest hit albums. I’ve always associated metal with bands like Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. For some reason, whether I hear a Led Zep song like the acoustic-driven “Friends” or one of their harder cuts like “Heartbreaker,” I don’t think heavy metal. Maybe I’ve been associating heavy metal with rock music I didn’t like and I just need to cop to the fact that I might be a burgeoning metal fan. Led Zeppelin definitely has some of the hallmarks of other metal pioneers: huge sounds with a lot of distortion, riff-heavy guitar parts, dark or depressing lyricism that dips into myth, ancient cultural and literary references, etc.

But Led Zeppelin always managed to distinguish itself from other related bands. Plant’s vocals seemed (at least slightly) more coherent than someone like Ozzy and he was far less dark than the other pioneering heavy metal groups were, and the band could create these musical landscapes that were so rich. Their songs had layers, and even the harder-rocking stuff was miles ahead of the clunky riff of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.”

Another fact I uncovered in doing research for this post was that Jimmy Page was not just the band’s lead guitarist, but he was truly the architect of Led Zeppelin as a cultural force (nowadays, this concept would be referred to as their “brand”). Led Zeppelin was assembled during the dissolution of an English band called the Yardbirds (of which Page was a member), and each move he made as the Yardbirds were parting was precisely calculated to start something new and groundbreaking but that would be something more than a flash in the pan.

These moves included ditching the Yardbirds name (rather than retaining it and the subsequent fanbase), carefully choosing new members based on group dynamic and musical compatibility, and keeping creative control exclusively within the band by retaining all production duties as his own. This last factor was a particularly astute decision by Page in the band’s very early days, as it kept them from answering to an outside producer who also had a stake in the band’s success and would push for hit singles (a problem that caused the quick downfall of the Jeff Beck Group, another band that sprouted from former members of the Yardbirds and had experienced initial success and then quick burnout). Page wanted the band to be an album-creating unit, and he chose musical colleagues that felt the same.

One last thing about Page: it took him only two months to make all of these shrewd business decisions that led to the creation of Led Zeppelin and the recording of their first album. On top of that, he was only 24 when this was all going down. Insanely impressive.

Led Zeppelin (1969)

ledzep1Led Zeppelin is the group’s debut album, and also their debut of hilariously uncreative album titles. The album cover is probably more recognizable than most of the tunes on this album, as the band really started cranking out the well-known hits on the next album and beyond.

Let me address the obvious right up front. This album co-opts a lot of other people’s music. I’m talking black blues, white folk, newly arranged hits already done by various iterations of the Yardbirds. The first couple songs really rock hard and then “You Shook Me” takes me to a place where I feel like intellectual property theft discussions need to occur.

And as I listened to it more and more, it seemed like the album had two gears: traditional 12-bar blues done by white Brits and minor-driven chords played by arena-melting crunchy-toned guitars. There honestly are places where I’m not totally sure what song I’m in, if I catch it during an extended bridge jam.

Led Zeppelin is a band known for epic rock tunes and because I have at least a taste of what’s to come on their later albums, this one ends up being lackluster.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Good Times, Bad Times
  2. Your Time Is Gonna Come
  3. Black Mountain Side

 

Led Zeppelin II (1969)

ledzep2This is more like it. Sure, Led Zep’s still ripping off black blues music, but they’ve found a way to make it their own thing. Taking inspiration from rather than just straight copying.

This album is so good. You can hear Led Zeppelin completely nailing it, fully coming into their own by only their sophomore album. This record is fully formed, no half-baked ideas, a unified sound, experimentation, homage to music from the past, voluminous layers both hard and soft. What blows me away the most is that this album was recorded in a very harried fashion. They recorded it mostly on the road, at a wide array of record studios, while they toured in support of their debut album. They’d go into extended jams during their shows and when they stumbled onto something great or the seed of an idea, they’d quickly hit the studio after a show to get it down on tape. All of Led Zeppelin II was recorded in this kind of rushed way.

So to reiterate, their debut, Led Zeppelin, was released in January of 1969 after the songs had been road tested for a few months, and they graced us with Led Zeppelin II a mere 10 months later. It took 10 months to create this iconic, timeless album. Talk about a home run.

This album is full of hard rockers that sound unique, very unlike most of what was around in 1969. Again, a lot of blues feeling comes through in these tunes, but this sounds original. Sounds that pop culture hadn’t heard yet and blew people away.

This is the first Led Zeppelin album engineered by Eddie Kramer, who was Jimi Hendrix’s technical point man during his very brief solo career. Kramer was a technical wizard and wielded a lot of influence in the studios in which he worked, and to me, “What Is And What Should Never Be” is the clearest example of his work. This tune has a lot of Hendrix’s spirit in it.

Kramer himself has credited Led Zeppelin’s guitarist, Jimmy Page, with the true success of the record’s sound. Led Zeppelin II was created by the band, but the visionary behind the record was Page. His guitar playing clearly reached a new level, with the solo from “Heartbreaker” being a prime example. Page was shredding his guitar in a way that hadn’t been heard and would influence countless guitar players. It’s crazy to think he was only 25 when he was pushing musical envelopes this much.

But this album isn’t just Page’s magnum opus. You’ve got a band of four distinct performers all hitting their stride very early in their careers. John Bonham’s drumming is a monster force that drives this album like a tank and he’s featured prominently with an extended drum solo in his showcase song, “Moby Dick.” John Paul Jones’ is a hybrid, wavering between a consistent force anchoring these tunes from spiraling off into outer space and adding a slight taste of Motown funk. This is the first album to feature writing by vocalist Robert Plant and begins his foray into the mystical, philosophical, spiritual and literary, with “Ramble On” being the first of his several allusions to J.R.R. Tolkein’s literary work. These four guys were firing on all cylinders, and none of them were older than 25 when Led Zeppelin II was recorded. Remarkable.

Again, this is Led Zeppelin taking their previous format and tweaking it into something totally new. Sure, you can hear the lifeblood of the blues pulsing through the veins of these songs, but they’re experimenting with tempos, rhythms, finding new guitar licks and techniques to create new sounds. This album is far more respectful to their inspirations than Led Zeppelin was, and because they’re fully committed to pushing boundaries and finding new ground, the sound is so much more memorable and long-lasting. “The Lemon Song” is a great example of this.

Pulled directly from a Robert Johnson lyric, “The Lemon Song” shows Led Zep pushing past the standard formula. Rather than a slow 12-bar blues structure, this song morphs as it goes. They’re playing with a faster tempo and changing rhythms, and even the bass creates this surprisingly groovy line that adds an element of funk. And when the song explodes into its faster section, Page’s guitar is just rocking and wailing. Very little here evokes a old black guy playing a dusty acoustic guitar, but the spirit lives on in the music.

But ultimately, once you get past all the fancy rhetoric about the timelessness of the record, it’s just a great one to listen to. It’s so much fun; Led Zeppelin II finds this perfect middle ground between the sluggishness of their first album and the dramatics of Led Zeppelin III and the result are songs that just rock.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. What Is And What Should Never Be
  2. Heartbreaker
  3. Living Loving Maid (She’s Just A Woman)

 

Led Zeppelin III (1970)

ledzep3After an intense year of touring and the rushed recording Led Zeppelin II, the band took some time to rejuvenate as they worked on the follow-up, Led Zeppelin III. This album has a significantly more stripped down sound when compared with Led Zeppelin II, and the main reason for this is the setting in which the band recorded it. They found a remote cottage in Wales that was not only isolated but primitive; they had no running water or electricity.

This led them to go heavy on the acoustics and the album has a much more tranquil, pastoral feel in the music than their first two albums. Certainly, it’s not as though the entire album is an unplugged affair (“Immigrant Song” sounds like a war cry, and Robert Plant’s lyrics read as such, referencing old Nordic myths and the Vikings coming to conquer England). Yet the feeling that the band was pumping the brakes on their new signature sound was the main reason for an initial lukewarm reception after the album’s release in the fall of 1970.

I think with how groundbreaking and awesome Led Zeppelin II was, people in 1970 were expecting something heavy, something as powerful as that record. While III isn’t as ear-shattering or as straightforward “rock,” it’s still got a lot of edge to it, bringing some drama to the proceedings, even though there are a lot more acoustic instruments than what came before.

“Gallows Pole” and “Immigrant Song” are like two sides of a coin in terms of dramatics. “Immigrant Song” is in the heavier, more traditional rock style (I’d assume all the fans wanting a carbon copy follow up of Led Zeppelin II were really happy with this song kicking off the record and were immediately let down once “Friends” began in the track 2 spot), while “Gallows Pole” is the other side of the coin. Very dramatic and heavy, but heavily acoustic, an arrangement of an old folk song about a condemned woman pleading for someone to buy her freedom before she is hung.

The dramatics continue with the slow blues tune “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” I love this tune because it continues and furthers the evolution of Led Zep’s filtering of old blues through their prism. Lots of minor chords and Page’s guitar work is just insane.

But then you’ve got some more upbeat tunes, or at least a little sunny. “Tangerine” sounds like the Rolling Stones circa Sticky Fingers, with a nice country feel. And my two favorite tunes are “Out On The Tiles” and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp.” Both are just fun, rollicking tunes, the former featuring a real kick ass electric riff and the latter, an acoustic hoedown with one of the coolest drum rhythm patterns.

What I love about Led Zeppelin III is that it served exactly the purpose that the band was aiming for, to demonstrate that they weren’t a one trick pony and could expand their sound beyond what had made them so immensely popular. The record does exactly that, but even more so, the record is a standalone gem. When taken separately from the rest of Led Zep’s discography, the album is powerful, dramatic, acoustic, loud, soft, country, rocking, etc. Sure, you might miss all the immediately recognizable riffs that are present all over Led Zeppelin II, but nevertheless this is a very high quality record. I’m really happy with Led Zep’s trajectory so far and excited to see where they take it with the huge next album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Out On The Tiles
  2. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
  3. Immigrant Song

 

Led Zeppelin IV (1971)

ledzep4I can only imagine the sheer joy of Led Zep fans in 1971 when they set the needle to the acetate after opening the plastic wrap on Led Zep’s untitled fourth album and heard the opening riff of “Black Dog.” After Led Zeppelin III didn’t have the warmest reception after its initial release (history, however, has been very kind to the record), IV sounds like a return to form, or at least a return to the form of Led Zeppelin II, the band’s breakthrough album.

In reality though, this record isn’t an attempt to capture the lightning in a bottle of that second album, but rather sounds like a swirling of all the elements that the band had attempted on previous releases to create something new. Something even more “Led Zeppelin-ey.”

I’d argue there are fewer cases for a band creating a sound even more “themselves” than Led Zep did with IV. This record has it all: anthem dramatics, folkey acoustic numbers, swampy blues numbers.

And it’s all really good. There is a reason this album became the third best selling album in US history. It was a massive success when it was released and it’s only grown in popularity since, selling in excess of 37 million copies. Numbers like that are unheard of today.

But then, songs like these are also unheard of today. Let’s take the album’s most popular song, “Stairway To Heaven.” This little number is easily one of the biggest hits of all time, constantly referenced in pop culture and arguably considered the greatest song of all time. What’s crazy is that Led Zep’s record label, Atlantic, desperately wanted to release this song as a single from the album, and the band refused because it would require cutting down the tune to fit current radio single length standards. The actual song runs just over eight minutes which was way too long for radio. And because of the band’s insistence, the song was never released as an official single.

Which is remarkable, considering how permeated pop culture is with the song, and how anthemic the song has become, what a cultural force it has. It sits in the company of songs like “Hotel California” and “Thriller” and “Hey Jude,” songs that have risen above simple album tunes to become larger than life. “Stairway” is this mammoth song that defies definition and speaks to listeners individually. What’s even crazier is that the song isn’t a radio-friendly tune. “Thriller” had the dance, “Hey Jude” has a sing-along chorus, but “Stairway” defies convention in its structure. It begins with that medieval intro, one of the most commonly learned guitar riffs ever, and slowly adds in those fife-like pipes as Plant sings about materialism, or spirituality, or the Second Coming, or whatever it means to the listener. But then Page plays that gorgeous A minor chord with the electric guitar at about 2:15 and the song begins its slow crescendo into something otherworldly.

So much has been written about this song that it’d be redundant for me to try and add anything new. It just certainly doesn’t take a music expert to listen and hear why it became such a cultural force to be reckoned with. If they hadn’t already, Led Zep sealed their legacy with this one song.

And it’s not even my favorite song on the album. The album has a few hard rockers like “Black Dog,” and on the other end of the spectrum it has these very medieval tunes like “The Battle Of Evermore” and “Stairway To Heaven.” Songs straight out of a Renaissance Fair. It’s an interesting mix to hear “The Battle Of Evermore” follow a song like “Rock & Roll,” but somehow, it all works on IV. This album is a rare treat: one that immediately earns the hype that history has given it. It’s a perfectly representative picture of this band, but it’s also just a damn good album.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Black Dog
  2. Going To California
  3. When The Levee Breaks

 

Houses Of The Holy (1973)

housesoftheholyIf IV is the album where the band solidified their historical status as rock legends, Houses Of The Holy is the album where they decided to let go and have a little fun. Sure, there is some fun to be had on IV, but Houses Of The Holy is definitely off kilter in the best way, in a way that takes Led Zep in a different direction than their first four albums had led to.

Listening to it, I’m curious what musical influences they had during the writing/recording process. There is a lot of weirdness here, at least for Led Zep. “The Crunge” sounds like Page is doing his best funk guitar appropriation, while Plant is finding vocal inspiration in James Brown’s classic mid-song adlibs to the band.

They’re experimenting with reggae beats, for crying out loud. “D’yer Mak’er” (pronounced quickly, similar to the word “Jamaica”) is the first of a few songs that pop up on this and subsequent Led Zep albums that are so out of left field and sound nothing like the heavy stuff the band is known for. I can’t imagine how this song must have gone over with fans when they first heard it in 1973. It almost sounds like a joke when put next to a song like “The Ocean” or “No Quarter.”

And then you’ve got “No Quarter,” which is the bleakest tune on the record, but retains that swampy, really humid sound that “Dazed And Confused” had off of their first album. When the main guitar riff comes in, it makes me think of those shots in movies where you see someone coming from miles away in the desert, and the heat is just radiating off the ground making them appear all wavy. Not sure if that’s what Page was going for but that’s what this tune does for me. It sounds like a song The Flaming Lips would make if they time-traveled to the early ’70s.

But the album peaks fast in the second tune, “The Rain Song.” This is an eight-minute epic, much like “Stairway To Heaven” from IV but without as much drama behind it. And some really gorgeous acoustic guitar work by Page. He’s playing with a open tuning on his guitar and it creates some very cool, ethereal chords.

Overall, this record is a fantastic example of how a band needs to follow up a smash like IV. They retain some of their musical DNA but stretch it, pulling in some new influences, sounds, rhythms, etc. And all the while, this whole thing still rocks. For every weird “The Crunge,” there is a heavy-rocking riff “Over The Hills And Far Away.” Hats off to Led Zep.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. The Rain Song
  2. Over The Hills And Far Away
  3. D’yer Mak’er

 

Physical Graffiti (1975)

physicalgraffitiThis is the band’s first double album, and I have to wonder why. This thing could so easily be cut into one record because it feels like there is so much padding. The band at this point wasn’t doing anything revolutionary with their style and to follow Houses Of The Holy up with a double record just seems so fluffy.

The first three songs demonstrate why. The album kicks off with “Custard Pie,” which is a pretty rockin’ opener with a great riff, but it’s followed by “The Rover” and “In My Time Of Dying.” “The Rover” sounds like a Black Sabbath tune to me, a song that attempts to emulate Led Zep’s signature rock but falls flat and feels drab. It’s like a derivative of a derivative sound.

And on top of that, they stick “In My Time Of Dying” next, which is just the longest example of what this album needs less of. Over 11 minutes long that just meanders.

That’s not to say everything’s bad; there’s just one good album among the fluff. “Down By The Seaside” carries on the weirdness and experimentation of Houses Of The Holy, while “Bron-Yr-Aur” and “Kashmir” are throwbacks to IV and Led Zeppelin III, respectively. Even “Trampled Under Foot” channels the organ-pounding of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” albeit with all the funk stripped away and turning it into a much more stiff affair.

I want to acknowledge the experimentation to point out that this album isn’t a showcase of a band on top, resting on their laurels, but rather a band at the top, not content to rest and working in overdrive. There is so much musical content on this record and a good amount of stretching the band’s boundaries.

But it’s a matter of excess. If they had just cut this album down, they’d have another great chapter in their discography, albeit a shade less great than the previous releases.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. Houses Of The Holy
  2. Down By The Seaside
  3. Bron-Yr-Aur

 

Album Ranking:

  1. Led Zeppelin II
  2. Houses Of The Holy
  3. Led Zeppelin IV
  4. Led Zeppelin III
  5. Physical Graffiti
  6. Led Zeppelin

Top 10 Tunes:

  1. What Is And What Should Never Be
  2. The Rain Song
  3. Out On The Tiles
  4. Heartbreaker
  5. Black Dog
  6. Bron-Y-Aur Stomp
  7. Going To California
  8. Over The Hills And Far Away
  9. Houses Of The Holy
  10. D’yer Mak’er

Final Thoughts:

As far as my album ranking goes, if I was being completely subjective, I’d place IV at the top of the list without a doubt. It’s the perfect distillation of how skilled and effective this band was at making fantastic rock music. But as far as what I enjoyed the most, II and Houses Of The Holy win.

Wow is this band awesome. A band this monumental requires a PhD dissertation to really delve into what a force they had in American music culture, rather than a two month listening stint (which is what I gave them). But I enjoyed this set of albums immensely, and it makes much more sense to me why Led Zep became such a musical force at their peak. They were able to write envelope-pushing rock that changed the face and direction of popular music in the ’70s and arguably created an entirely new genre of music. They were just plain awesome and their music demonstrates that without a doubt.

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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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