Bill Withers

Menagerie

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Following the twin peaks of Still Bill and Live at Carnegie Hall in the early '70s, Bill Withers had a little trouble sustaining his peak of creativity, along with his chart positions. He still made good music and had hits, but had trouble delivering a consistent album that brought him back to the heights of his Sussex work. Finally, in 1977, he delivered Menagerie, an assured return to form by one of soul's greatest singer/songwriters of the '70s. If Menagerie doesn't have the earthiness or consistent brilliance of Still Bill, it nevertheless has a solid set of songs and an easy, relaxed charm that is thoroughly winning. Where his Sussex material was slyly eclectic, touching on a number of different styles, this album is more cohesive, a smooth album that points the way toward quiet storm while retaining a warm soulfulness, largely due to Withers' wonderful voice. Even when the tempo gets sprightly, as on "Lovely Night for Dancing," there's a relaxed vibe and a nice sheen to the production that keeps things even-handed and easy. As such, those listeners who preferred the darker undercurrents that ran through such songs as "Use Me" and "Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?" may find this a little too amiable, but that's just a matter of taste -- this is an easy record to like, after all, with a consistent tone and a soothing vibe, plus a good set of songs. If it's not as distinctive as his Sussex records, it's nevertheless an undeniable high point in his catalog. [The 2003 reissue contains three bonus tracks: a previously unreleased demo of "Rosie," a single version of "Lovely Night for Dancing," and an instrumental of "Let Me Be the One You Need."]

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