Friday, September 23, 2005

Bill Withers: An appreciation

GMC's current ad campaign's use of a song I've not heard in many, many years, "Use Me," reminded me (again) of Bill Withers. Withers is, for me, the Gordon Lightfoot of R&B singers: not a performer who immediately comes to mind when one assembles a personal pantheon of Talented Singer/Songwriters from the Sixties and Seventies but, when one thinks on the best songs that writer is responsible for, a singer whom, nevertheless, one must somehow take into account in some way.

Another comparison? Okay. Withers reminds me of my Corolla: he's not flashy but reliable and, in the end, satisfying. But always in the end. Withers' songs won't wow most people from the get-go, the way younger (think American Idol) singers, with their fixation on melisma for its own sake (mistaking it for "soul") seem compelled to do with their voice, as though to compensate for the song's inadequacy. Withers' music grows on you in the best way: his best songs are sturdy; his arrangements seek to enhance the melody and not draw attention to themselves. They are comfortable and functional and economical.

One example of what I mean is the first song I know him by, "Ain't No Sunshine." For me, THE part of the song is his long string of "I know"s that consists of, mostly, just his voice and at most, if I'm remembering correctly, a soft drumbeat keeping time. The effect is that of a man obsessively visting, revisiting those hours he had spent with his now-departed lover, a kind of mental pacing of the halls of his memory as he aches from the loss of her presence. And those final "I know"s, raising in pitch and volume . . . as though he's yelling at that same obsessiveness. He shows; he doesn't tell--and all with a two-word repeated phrase. It's sneaky, chilling. You cannot help but "watch."

"Lean on Me" is Withers' best-known and most-often-covered song. For my money, though, his version is still the best: the arrangement is spare and gospel-like; and, given the lyric, it's entirely appropriate that its most prominent feature is Withers' voice. It is, indeed, sturdy enough to, um, lean on. The covers I've heard, though, seem to have been made by people who just aren't HEARING the original, hearing its strengths and exploring them in their own versions. In particular, I'm thinking of that one from the 90's (I (thankfully) cannot recall the "artist" just now) that ups the tempo and volume and includes the absolutely inexplicable addition of a blaring "We be jammin'! We be jammin'!" right in the middle of the song. Their version stops serving the song and its sentiment at that moment, if, indeed, their version ever tries to serve it; it instead serves something else: the collective ego of the group. Or something. I just don't get it on an artistic level.

"Just the Two of Us" is more ornate, with its almost chime-like electric piano, saxophone and soft steel drums, but that's because the song's lyric is not about one person but about two people, both of whom are present in the song. Here, it might be useful to compare it to a song similar to it in subject matter, Al Green's masterpiece "Let's Stay Together." In that song, Green's voice, soaring and swooping over that bumping, grinding Memphis soul rhythm section, is the whole show, as it should be. In a way, it doesn't matter what he's singing; that voice is a Siren song. As Ian Hunter once said of Elvis, Al Green "is sexy even to guys--I can't imagine what the girls thought." Al Green sings of commitment to his lover whether times are good or bad, happy or sad, but/and they're going to work up a good, long, sexy sweat in the meantime. Bill Withers is no Al Green, and he knows it. And so it's interesting that the arrangement for the lyrically-similar "Just the Two of Us," conveying intimacy and candlelight, is more romantic, less carnal. Somehow, it's more "settled," more "domestic," even as Withers sings of building them castles way on high. And I can only conclude that Withers' voice, not the arrangement, is the real difference: it's just as sturdy in this song as it is in "Lean on Me." If there's a false note, it's in the "let's get it together, baby"s that appear toward the song's end. They just don't seem to fit, but at least they appear late.

Is "reliability" something certain kinds of artists should aspire to? That is: the artist doesn't appear to risk, to push envelopes, but intimately knows his/her strengths and weakenesses and uses them to his utmost. The ancient Greeks thought of Odysseus as the consummate man not because he was the bravest or strongest or etc. but because he too knew his strengths and weaknesses and used his abilities to his utmost. Seems to me there's no shame in saying that Bill Withers is no Al Green if you CAN say that he's the Odysseus of R&B.

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