William Bell

New Lease on Life

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As a singer and songwriter, William Bell was one of the great men of the Southern soul scene of the 1960s, and it's gratifying to know that the man is still around and still in fine voice. From the first track of Bell's 2006 album New Lease on Life, it's clear that his instrument is as strong as ever -- his musical and emotional range is still mighty and impressive, and his phasing demonstrates he hasn't forgotten how to sell a song. However, while Bell himself sounds great, the rest of the album is underwhelming; the sessions were produced by Reginald "Wizard" Jones, who also plays the keyboards and handles the programming, and he's given the tracks a thin-sounding digital sheen that doesn't flatter the melodies and provides a harsh background for Bell's lead vocals. Bell either wrote or co-wrote all the songs on New Lease on Life, and while the melodies are pleasing, the lyrics often sound rote, as if Bell is rehashing themes he covered with better results in the past; the low point is "Playaz Only Love You (When They're Playing)," in which he (apparently unknowingly) lifts a key line from Stevie Nicks of all people, and while the sentiment behind the "support the troops" number "Keep a Light in the Window" is admirable, the results are clumsy and overly sentimental. Bell still has the talent to make a fine record, but the pieces don't come together on New Lease on Life. Could someone persuade Joe Henry to produce a career-reviving album for Bell like he did for Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette?

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