3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Bill Withers was a sincere songwriter without filters who breathed life into his semi-autobiographical characters, such as his sanctimonious grandmother ("Grandma's Hands"), shysters posing as pious men ("Harlem"), cozy acquaintances ("Kissing My Love") and hopeless love affairs ("Let Me Into Your Life").Withers served in the Navy, moving onto an inglorious career building airplane toilet seats on an assembly line before launching his music career at the ripe age of 33. His first album, 1971's "Just As I Am," produced by Booker T. Jones, featured "Grandma's Hands" and the intense # 3 hit "Ain't No Sunshine." His second album, "Still Bill" was his most successful, yielding a #2 hit in the bossa nova inspired "Use Me," and a #1 in "Lean on Me," his ode to brotherhood.
His third album, "Live at Carnegie Hall," was a gritty celebration of an artist re-shaping his songs in front of an appreciative audience. Withers seemed perched on the precipice of singer/songwriter immortality when his fourth album "+ 'Justments" was released in 1974. But it wasn't to be. "+ 'Justments" didn't yield any top ten hits, in part because Withers personal life was withering - he was having marital problems with his wife, actress Denise Nicholas (Liz McIntire on "Room 222") and his record company, Sussex, was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Withers' music on "+ 'Justments" is sparse. He relies mostly on strings, the pluck of a harp or a Jack Bruce-like bass line by Melvin Dunlap, letting his lyrics set the tone.
The opening cut. "You," is the most vitriolic song Withers ever wrote, a funky diatribe with low rider bass lines, shivering strings and lyrics seemingly directed at Nicholas and Hollywood's party people: "I have a friend who knows your best friend; he's going some places she goes. He says he saw ya'll at a party, stuffin' white powder up your nose." With caustic comments like that, it's not surprising the single didn't chart and the album remained unissued on CD until this year.
The album's most moving and memorable track is the gospel-influenced "Stories." Withers sounds like a minister preaching to his flock, his wailing vocal sparsely framed by John Barnes' hallowed piano and lilting passages on harp by Dorothy Ashby: "Who will buy a glad story that a young man has to tell? Come into my house of glory and I will treat you well."
If "Ruby Lee" sounds familiar, it's because Joe Cocker featured a reggae-style version on his "Sheffield Steel" album. Withers' steamy original features his attack dog vocal, Dunlap's snakey bass lines and James Gadson hammering out a rim shot beat against a tense string arrangement.
Denise Nicholas only wrote one song, "Can We Pretend," during her brief career as a folkie singing in coffee houses. Withers' version of "Can We Pretend" is addled by rote lyrics and its easy listening jazzy arrangement that paved the way to for "Just the Two of Us," his syrupy collaboration with Grover Washington, Jr. Guest Jose Feliciano's nimble acoustic picking saves the day, buoying Withers' carefree vocal.
Withers is at his best on "+ 'Justments" when he's spewing his anger or hurt. As a result, the remaining more docile cuts come off as weak or lack direction. "Liza," a ballad dedicated to his niece, drowns in its own schmaltz and "Make a Smile for Me," travels the same mellow road with Withers doubling up on electric piano and acoustic guitar. The closer, "Rail Road Man," is a loose jam based on Withers recollections of watching the freight trains pass through his hometown of Slab Fork, West Virginia. It's a long-winded boogie that gets a bit repetitive lyrically ("He was a railroad man until he stepped in front of the rail-road train"), but Feliciano is on board on conga to help provide the chooglin' beat.
When the album stalled at #67, Sussex folded and the Withers-Nicholas union crumbled, Withers had to make some 'justments of his own, signing with Columbia and remarrying. "Still Bill" remains his most popular work, but "+Justments" offers a revealing look at an artist using his crumbling life as his muse.
An expanded version of "+'Justments" featuring eight bonus cuts from Withers' next two albums, 1975's "Making Music" and 1976's "Naked and Warm" is available from Raven Records.