With his new album Lean on Me, Blue Note artist José James provides track-by-track recreations of soul master Bill Withers’ best-known hits. James has a phenomenal voice that captures the spirit of the originals and would make him an ideal frontman for a Withers tribute act. As a result, the album’s biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. James mirrors Withers’ sound so precisely that you have to give each track a close listen to discern any differences between his versions and the originals. Unfortunately, in the streaming era this presents a conundrum: why should one listen to the perfect tribute and not just click on Withers’ originals?
The answer is that James includes a few changes here and there, making the album come across like a Withers “alternate takes” compilation. For example, on the opening track, “Ain’t No Sunshine,” James drops the string arrangements, gives the song some acoustic guitar, and throws in a keyboard solo near the end.
Using this formula, the one track that falls short is James’ cover of “Just the Two of Us” — Withers’ and Grover Washington Jr.’s make-out classic from the early ‘80s. In the original, there was a female vocal track calling out a response every time Withers’ sang the chorus. James drops these backing vocals. Since the cover is otherwise similar to the original, every time he sings out “Just the Two of Us,” you find yourself waiting for a response that never comes. It somehow feels unsatisfying and would have worked better had he just completely revamped the song.
As it turns out, what James really needed was a woman’s touch. On the album’s strongest track, “Lovely Day,” James is joined by jazz singer Lalah Hathaway. The song starts off with a high-hat, guitar, and bass groove as James sings the first two verses on his own (again, like the original). Hathaway comes in on backup near the end of the second chorus; the two then trade off for the third verse. The lyrics work well as a duet and Hathaway provides a healthy dose of scatting to close out the track.
So while the album might not reinvent Wither’s music, it makes you want to catch James’ live act. Since Withers has long retired from touring, seeing James in concert might be your best chance to hear “Lean on Me” and “Use Me” played like they were meant to be played.
You can buy Lean on Me on Amazon.