William Bell's New Lease On Life might appear to be a comeback for the legendary songwriter. As far as the world of mainstream pop music is concerned, he hasn't had a hit in a while. Perhaps the most famous version of his signature song, "You Don't Miss Your Water," was recorded by Otis Redding in 1966 on Otis Blue, but the tune has been covered since by everyone from Johnny Adams, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Taj Mahal, to the Byrds and Brian Eno! Even better known is the blues classic he co-wrote with Booker T Jones; it might be easier to list the folks who haven't recorded "Born Under A Bad Sign" (Klaus Doldinger's Passport and the Simpsons anyone?). But Bell has released records and had hits in the intervening years in the hidden world of Southern soul and R&B, a genre that has thrived unabated on select radio stations, "chitlin circuit" clubs, and among mostly British and European fanatics, from the heyday of Stax to the present.
His latest, New Lease On Life, is firmly in the tradition of the rural soul, kept alive by labels like Malaco and artists like Denise LaSalle. The opening title tune and its follow-up, "Playaz Only Love You (When They're Playing)," are textbook demonstrations of how all you need is a good story, a funky groove, and a great voice to make one chord all that a song needs. NLOL works all the classic clichés that are as effective today as they were in the Sixties: the slinky guitars, the contrapuntal background vocals, the tales of loving one's best friend's girl ("My Body Don't Know"), the rap over a vamp (in the old sense of a recitation that sets up the sung story).
The record closes with "Save Us" and "Every Sunday Morning," two songs that reference, albeit obliquely, the church that spawned this timeless music. Bell breaks no new ground here but neither is there any hint of self-conscious "retro" production. Like Dan Penn's brilliant 1994 record Do Right Man, this release is pure Southern soul--played, written, sung, and recorded the way it oughta be, which is all this music needs to continually have a new lease on life.
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