Menagerie, the 1977 album by soul star Bill Withers, sounds a bit similar to the excellent ‘70s Reprise albums of ace New Orleans producer and arranger Allen Toussaint. But where Toussaint comes off as romantic, Withers seems treacly. With a few exceptions, uninspired disco orchestration and insipid lyrics here take the place of the folksy, funky soul of Withers’ early ‘70s hits.
Of all the songs on this CD reissue of Menagerie, which includes three bonus tracks, only two stand out as enjoyable. “Lovely Day”, a #6 R&B hit, would be just about the only great reason to pick up this disc, and you can find that tune elsewhere. A funky guitar lick processed through a flanger, swelling strings and horns, and a rhythm section loping along in a gentle but insistent groove make this a great track. It’s sweet and smooth, but funky, too. The song really reaches the heights when Withers holds the word “day” in the chorus for seconds on end, as a background vocalist sings the song’s title, over and over again, in a lower register. The other keeper on this record, “Wintertime”, contains an endearing message from an older brother to his younger brother. Withers, in the role of the older brother, urges his young friend to look to the warmth inside himself during the cold winter months, when everything outside dies.
Unfortunately, the rest of this CD sounds kind of like the music played by Murph and the Magictones before Jake and Elwood rescued them from the Holiday Inn. I guess Withers was just trying to change with the times. By the late ‘70s, traditional soul music had just about vanished from the R&B charts, giving way to funk and disco. The music on Menagerie appropriates from those two genres in what appears to be an effort to seem with it. Funky bass lines, Stevie Wonderesque keys, and Withers’ singing cannot save songs like “Lovely Night for Dancing” and “Then You Smile at Me” from the open hi-hat disco beat and cheesy strings that dominate them. And these two actually sound worlds better than the pure disco pabulum of “She Wants To (Get on Down)”.
Sadly, the album is even more disappointing lyrically than it is musically. Gone is the wisdom and insight of early ‘70s Withers tracks like “Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone”, “Grandma’s Hands”, and “Use Me”. In their place: late ‘70s, pre-AIDS disco culture “romance”, R&B style. In many of these songs, Withers seems to be saying something like: “You smiled at me in the club, so let’s go to bed, and I sure do love you, baby, even though I’ve known you for less than ten minutes.” For example, on “Let Me Be the One You Need,” he admits that he “just met” a woman “yesterday”, but he pleads that he can be “the one” she loves and begs her to let him “the one” she needs.
My advice: Stick with a Withers greatest hits collection that includes “Lovely Day” and leave this reissue of Menagerie on the rack.