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William Bell Sings With Strength And Directness On 'This Is Where I Live'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, has a review of soul singer William Bell's new album, "This Is Where I Live." Bell first had a hit with the song "You Don't Miss Your Water" in 1961. Bell co-wrote the classic blues song "Born Under A Bad Sign" and recorded R&B for Stax Records in the '60s and '70s. Ken says the new album can stand with the best of Bell's work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE WANT TO GO HOME")

WILLIAM BELL: (Singing) There was a time where nothing held you down. You wanted it all, from the sky to the ground. Now all along, you thought you were free, but that's not the way it turned out to be 'cause when you're tired, people want to go home. When you're lonely -

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: William Bell sings with a warmth that remains undimmed more than 50 years after his first hit. He was never a huge star, but for anyone aware of his work he's been a constant, steady source of pleasure, a singer whose sense of intimacy with his audience forms a direct connection. At his best, William Bell can seem to be inside your mind, articulating hopes, fears and doubts you may have had yourself. You can hear that connection on the song that leads off "This Is Where I Live," a song about conflicting aspects of personality called "The Three Of Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE THREE OF ME")

BELL: (Singing) Last night, I had a dream and there were three of me. There was the man I was, the man I am and the man I want to be. It's not that easy to -

TUCKER: Bell goes over some of the specifics of his career in the album's title tune, one of the rare autobiographical songs that conveys its information without tedium or boastfulness. He also sings with infinite compassion and tenderness on another song, the achingly vulnerable and protective "I Will Take Care Of You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL TAKE CARE OF YOU")

BELL: (Singing) When all the years have come and gone and laid you low, you should know when you think you're left out on your own, I will be there. I never gave you fancy clothes, no diamond rings or the finer things. But when you feel all alone, don't you despair. I will take care of you. Oh, yes I will. I will take care of you.

TUCKER: The triumph of "This Is Where I Live" cannot be separated from the production by John Leventhal. Leventhal has managed to make the music here sound as though it was recorded just yesterday, but also perhaps a half-century ago. The drums have that classic moist Memphis soul thump. The guitars ring out with a stinging precision that underscores the pain in Bell's voice and lyrics. One great showcase for the sound on this album can be heard on a song Bell and Leventhal co-wrote, the metaphorically clever and poignant "More Rooms."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MORE ROOMS")

BELL: (Singing) Remember on our wedding day, I carried you in my arms through the front door of this house, vowing to keep you from harm. In love forever we'd always be. We had plans for family. The fire was burning hot, but ashes was all we got. Don't you know there's more rooms in a house? More rooms in a house, more rooms living than the bedroom?

TUCKER: Listen to the way Bell and his producer take a song by Leventhal and Rosanne Cash, "Walking On A Tightrope," and turn it into something that sounds like a 1960s soul hit you've never heard before. I agree with Greil Marcus' remark - can't Leventhal have Cash and Bell make their next album together?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING ON A TIGHTROPE")

BELL: (Singing) You can slam the door and walk from here to Georgia. You can burn old friends till one by one they fall. You can spend your last thin dime trying to make yourself feel fine. You can cry through every story, but I've heard them all.

TUCKER: There's no need to approach "This Is Where I Live" as an item of nostalgia. Throughout this album, William Bell sings with a strength and directness that bypasses any suggestion that you might need to make some allowances for a man who's now in his mid-70s. Instead, there's a careful power that uncoils steadily as the album proceeds. It's the sound of a man seizing an opportunity and making it a challenge that he turns into a triumph.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed William Bell's new album, "This Is Where I Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN")

BELL: (Singing) Born under a bad sign. I've been down since I began to crawl. Oh, if it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all.

GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Broadway and movie producer Scott Rudin, the lead producer of five shows up for Tonys this Sunday and my conversation with Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer about their new hip-hop comedy, "Popstar," check out our podcast.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN UNDER A BAD SIGN")

BELL: (Singing) I can't read, didn't learn how to write. My whole life has been one big fight. Born under a bad sign. I've been down since I began to crawl. Oh, if it wasn't for real bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.