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William Bell – This Is Where I Live

8.7

Are people talking about this record? Truthfully, I haven’t paid any attention to whatever reaction there’s been to it. Just wondering, though. I know that no one’s hyperventilating over it like they raved about, oh, Leon Bridges’ debut album a year ago, or Mayer Hawthorne a few years before that. Hey, I’ve done this long enough to know that a hot, young upstart, no matter the enormity of his debt to the originators of his adopted style, is always gonna get more hype and buzz and leg than the veteran originators themselves. But, still… damn…

This Is Where I Live is William Bell’s first release on Stax Records in over 40 years, so the press release tells me. That’s mainly a symbolic bullet point only, since the Stax Records of today has next to nothing in common with the groundbreaking Memphis R&B label of the ‘60s, aside from the use of a logo. But it is significant in that it’s Bell’s first album in decades to get a wide release through an established company (Concord Bicycle Music, which currently owns the rights to Stax), with all the promotion that goes along with it. So, yeah, in that sense it’s a comeback, one that Bell’s been building up to for several years, and I’m pleased to report that he nails it.

By it, I suppose I mean that sound. That smooth, mature R&B sound that Bell and selected peers crafted to perfection during the 1960s. It’s no exaggeration to say you could claim that This Is Where I Live was culled from long-lost sessions recorded in 1967 and no one would be the wiser. There are none of the typical guest collaborations with current artists, no concessions to modern musical trends, no references to dismal current political/social affairs in the lyrics. Thank God.

Now, anyone who saw our show with Bell at the EARL last December knows firsthand that his 76-year-old voice has lost none of its richness or commanding resonance. Producer, musician, songwriter and all-around Americana savior John Leventhal’s commanding mark is all over this endeavor, co-writing all but two of its songs (all with Bell aside from one penned with Mrs. Leventhal, Rosanne Cash), playing all of the guitars, keyboards and standup bass and arranging the material, and he certainly succeeds in creating an appropriate environment in which Bell can shine. In fact, the sound is so respectful of tradition that not only will you be wondering, upon hearing the first notes, whether you’ve heard these tunes on another record, you’ll be questioning whether you heard them just a couple songs earlier. I mean, “Walking On a Tightrope” and “I Will Take Care of You,” while both heartfelt and touching, are basically the same song. If I have any complaint at all about this album, it’s a lack of variety that grows more apparent as it plays on. But then, the same could be said for a lot of ‘60s R&B albums that are regarded as classics.

But there are other songs here – songs of regret, reflection, devotion and wisdom that only a man of a certain age and experience could honestly, effectively render – that will stick with you for weeks, months, years. Bell’s rendition of Jesse Winchester’s “All Your Stories” stands out with its stirring starkness. He gives us what has to be the definitive recording of “Born Under a Bad Sign.” “The Three of Me” grapples with that eternal struggle to do the right thing in defiance of temptation. And the simple, autobiographical title track, wherein Bell connects his love of music and performing with his love of home and family life (here in Atlanta, in case you weren’t aware), is upbeat, positive and perfect. Welcome back, neighbor.

William Bell
This Is Where I Live
[Stax]