I am perhaps softening in my old age, because this is a slicker soul record than the kind I like, though only a little bit slicker. Basically I used to not really tolerate soul with strings but apparently I can now. So that’s a weird way to start this.
Withers is a proper songwriter, which can’t always be said for soul singers. You know “Ain’t No Sunshine,” which is a better performance than I remember it being, but the rest of the songs are pretty good. As someone else (Christgau?) described him, it’s almost as if Withers is a folkie who sings soul.
Withers is a pretty good singer, he’s not Al Green but he’s got a distinct and pretty good voice. And when he decides to vamp a bit, you really get to imagine what he would be like in concert. At least some of why I like this as much as I do have to do with his voice, which rescues some of the slicker songs.
He’s backed by most of the MGs, minus Cropper, plus some rock musicians, most notably Stephen Stills. (I have no idea how many tracks Stills and Keltner play on. I don’t always hear a lead guitar part, so I assume Stills is the lead on only some songs.) This is certainly not the sound of the MGs I remember and I wonder how much of this has to do with leaving Stax and how much it has to do with missing Cropper. Cropper was off doing his own thing and it would be interesting to hear if the records he was producing in 1971 sound grittier and rougher than this thing, which is much slicker than anything the MGs made at Stax.
Perhaps my favourite thing about the record are Withers’ takes on “Everybody’s Talkin'” and “Let It Be.” The former is definitely better than Nilsson’s iconic version and the latter is so far from an obvious take it might be my favourite cover of that Beatles song I’ve ever heard.
Anyway, though it’s a little slick for my tastes – too much strings!!! – it’s a pretty great debut, full of good songs, two excellent covers, and excellent soul singing.