Bobby Womack – The Poet

The Poet

Bobby WomackThe Poet Beverly Glen BG-10000 (1981)

Bobby still can sing and write like he used to.  Problem is this album doesn’t always sound sympathetic to what Bobby does best, but overtly tries to appeal to listeners into Prince as well as the “quiet storm” crowd.  Take the airy backing vocals — no need for those.  Anyway, this is a very serviceable album even if it’s not his best.  If it hadn’t been recorded in the early 1980s it might have been better.

Bobby Womack – The Poet II

The Poet II

Bobby WomackThe Poet II Beverly Glen BG-10003 (1984)

It’s probably no surprise that this one suffers from a number of the usual faults of 1980s production values.  The synths take away from it.  Guest Patti LaBelle, as expected, mostly just adds showy vocalizations like she’s trying to impress talent show judges.  This one is definitely not a good representation of Womack’s talents

Bobby Womack – The Soul of Bobby Womack: Stop on By

The Soul of Bobby Womack: Stop on By

Bobby WomackThe Soul of Bobby Womack: Stop on By (The Heart of Soul Series) EMI 7243 8 53965 2 6 (1996)

Bobby Womack had something no other soul musician of his time had. His songs were often complex and layered, with strings, horns, backing singers, and studio effects mixed in with guitars and bass. In spite of all that, his recordings sound intimate, as if Bobby was sitting across the room from you singing and playing. Unlike so many other performers, Bobby Womack never lost the basic simplicity of his messages in all the layers of sound piled on top. The ways he accomplished that aren’t readily apparent, though interestingly drums were usually simple and unobtrusive in his music. He took all the assets of a singer-songwriter into the realm of soul and R&B while still retaining the essential richness of the latter. Lots of this material sounds like a product of its time yet still holds interest. His “Across 110th Street” movie theme song has been reused in subsequent films (like American Gangster) to create a 1970s street life ambiance. This particular compilation is notable for being the first release of a demo version of “Across 110th Street”, which strangely enough might be Womack’s single finest recording. It’s just him on guitar and vocals. Without the density of the final studio version, his guitar sounds direct, and his vocals are actually more searching and powerful. Another of Bobby Womack’s qualities was his use of grown-up themes and lyrics. Like Isaac Hayes perhaps, and aside from their best-known movie theme songs, they both dealt mainly with small, nuanced subjects about relationships, lifestyle, getting by. I’m not sure Bobby Womack is the place to start if you’ve never listened to soul music before. But if you’ve spent time with the music of earlier soul legends, consider giving Womack a try. He was genuinely an heir to the great ones, and he took soul/R&B in a new direction. It probably takes a bit more effort to appreciate his stuff, but it’s definitely worth it.

Bobby Womack – The Bravest Man in the Universe

The Bravest Man in the Universe

Bobby WomackThe Bravest Man in the Universe XL Recordings XLCD561 (2012)

What to make of Bobby Womack’s comeback album The Bravest Man in the Universe?  It’s really two albums in one.  There’s the focus-grouped, calculated part, with guest spots from the likes of flash-in-the-pan indie bimbo Lana Del Rey and overbearing electronic beats by Damon Albarn–oh there’s no chance whatsoever that you’ll think Womack can’t be set against “modern” electronics.  Then there’s the other part, with compelling, funny, charming, mature ruminations on religion, life and relationships, presented matter-of-factly, and as intimately as any Womack recording of old.  These disparate albums meet at times, but also seem to inhabit separate worlds at others.

Parts of the album are best viewed in context.  The electronic soul of The Bravest Man in the Universe seems most directly inspired by Gil Scott-Heron‘s surprise indie hit of 2010 I’m New Here.  That’s made clear on Heron’s fittingly hilarious appearance on “Stupid Introlude.”  But the specifics of the beats lie somewhere else, attired in calm orchestration and stately piano and bolstered by monotone newscaster-style spoken word bits, at times even coming across as reminiscent of the glitchy ambient electronics of David Sylvian from almost a decade ago.  When switching gears to more traditional gospel soul (“Deep River”), Womack reveals something akin to when Sly Stone seemed to drop the act and reveal the weary puppet-master on “Sylvester” from Ain’t But the One Way.

This was a modest hit.  The problem is that the electronics are too superficial for the music.  They are like the new, corporatized Time Square: flashy but fundamentally incapable of soulful resonance.  Womack’s voice powers through most of the time.  But, really, why should it have to?  Trimming a lot of that back, to just a few of the best of the dance-oriented cuts, and adding in a few more smoldering acoustic cuts that leave more space around Womack’s voice might have made this a bit more lasting.  As it stands, this suffers from the same faddish production choices that held our man back in the 1980s (The Poet).   Womack really needs a Rick Rubin, or maybe to pay more attention to how Jamie Lidell‘s career has evolved.