Bill Withers: Menagerie

Jordan Kessler

Bill Withers


Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2003-01-28
UK Release Date: Available as import

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.