Bill Withers' Greatest Hits
Columbia Records, 1981
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 08/17/1997
One thing I love about big sales at the used record stores are the wondrous treaures someone like me can lay his greedy mitts upon. At one such sale on Saturday, I ended up with some 60 items for just under $12. (Unfortunately, two of the tapes turned out to be illegal copies - fucking bootleggers...)
One of the tapes I grabbed was a collection fron '70s soul artist Bill Withers, who had impressed me at a young age with songs like "Lean On Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine." How could someone go wrong with an album like Bill Withers' Greatest Hits?
Easy: Withers has limited range which doesn't carry past the few hits he's had. (Okay, a second way to go wrong is when this tape is one of the pirated ones I accidentally bought.)
Withers has a whiskey-smooth delivery as heard on his two early hits, "Lean On Me" and "Ain't No Sunshine." The last time I remember him charting was in the early '80s with "Just The Two Of Us," which leads off the album. These three songs are enough to lead someone into believing that Withers was a master of lite-rock, make-out soul that was the direct opposite of other African-American musicians of the time like Stevie Wonder.
But when you start discovering some of his other work, it almost makes you wonder how Withers managed to hit the charts three times, much less one. Some of the songs like "Grandma's Hands" are moving, but nothing special, while others like "Use Me" and "Lonely Day" just evoke no emotion from the listener. In fact, "Use Me" sounds a little like some of the soul Wonder was producing at the time, albeit much more controlled.
That's not to say there is nothing else worth listening to on Bill Withers' Greatest Hits. "Soul Shadows," which apparently was also a hit for Withers (it gets mention on the front cover), has its moments, while "Hello Like Before" is an interesting tale of, from what I can draw from it, former lovers who see each other socially and the lack of comfort they used to have.
And I would rather have an album with all the songs I love padded with shit than have to buy several albums just to get one or two tracks. With Withers, the extra material isn't shit, but it does reveal possibly a lack of ambition. He obviously knew how to hit the bullseye - "Ain't No Sunshine" clinched that for me - but he chooses not to. That's interesting - and also disturbing. What Withers could have done for soul music is left as a footnote to the genre.
Bill Withers' Greatest Hits has its moments which will have you reliving the times you first heard them and what you were feeling. But it sometimes feels like a long journey for small, but worthy, nuggets.