The recently released Lay It Down is now the third Al Green album in the past few years (following 2003's I Can't Stop and 2005's Everything's O.K.). After mostly eschewing secular music for a couple of decades, the good Reverend Green is suddenly nearly as prolific as he was during his '70s heyday.
In truth, there may not be a single truly memorable song across these three "comeback" discs, but as groove music, this stretch of recordings is so consistently pleasurable that it suggests that as long as Green's voice is in good health and he's paired with an understanding, supportive producer, he may be incapable of making a bad record.
After two pairings with Willie Mitchell back at his old Royal Studio stomping grounds, Green heads north here, recording at studios in New York and Philadelphia with Amir "?uestlove" Thompson (drummer for Philly hip-hop band the Roots) and keyboardist James Poyser producing and contemporary neo-soul stars Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, and Corinne Bailey Rae providing occasional support.
In theory, this is a recipe for good publicity and overheated, overdone music, but Thompson's tastes are too refined and his demeanor too reluctant to compromise to take any of the easy commercial routes. The imposing but soft-voiced Thompson has told reporters that he was inspired by Van Lear Rose, the recent Jack White-produced Loretta Lynn album that's the very best of the aging-legend-meets-hip-inheritor brand of high-concept comeback albums.
On Van Lear Rose, White doesn't drown Lynn in guest stars or overly fetishize her musical persona. He just provides her with a bracing, contemporary setting and lets her be the best possible version of her modern self. Thompson wondered why the same thing couldn't happen in black music and set out to make Lay It Down (after a sadly aborted attempt to coax the reclusive Bill Withers into the studio) a soul equivalent to Van Lear Rose. And he succeeded.
There are two familiar ways record companies have come to repackage legends: the covers/standards record and the cameo-laden tribute-oriented disc. Thompson dismissed the former and, though he invited some of his scene cohorts to participate, makes sure everyone involved pays homage to Green by providing him with an energizing forum and then getting out of his way.
The original tracks for the bulk of Lay It Down were recorded in one night at Electric Lady Studios in New York, with Thompson and Poyser (who set the album's percussive foundation themselves on drums and keys) attempting to replicate the relaxed imperfections of '70s recording conditions while Green wrote in the studio.
When I Can't Stop and Everything's O.K. dropped, the neo-soul scene was firmly grounded. But, in the period since Everything's O.K., a retro-soul movement has bloomed, one driven by young musicians as inspired by Green's classic '70s work as their neo-soul counterparts but even more obsessive about modernizing the sound of that music without losing its spirit. And that segment of the contemporary soul world makes an impact on Lay It Down, with the Dap-Kings Horns spiking the action.
As a result, Green found himself not with old companions connected via nostalgia or a shared desire to prove they can still be contemporary, but rather with younger cohorts striving to live up to Green's own greatness. Thompson baldly stated he wanted to come away with the best Al Green record since The Belle Album, and he may have succeeded.
In comparison to its immediate predecessors (both very good records in their own right), Lay It Down sounds more vintage without sounding like it's trying as hard to sound vintage. It's a subtle, moody, slow-burning groove album in the classic Green tradition, but the difference is somewhere in the grain and texture of the music that defies description.
If Lay It Down hadn't been preceded by I Can't Stop and Everything's O.K., very solid records with the great back-story of Green's reunion with Willie Mitchell, it would be getting even more attention. It's probably the best album by a classic-era soul star since Aretha Franklin's Who's Zoomin' Who? in 1985. And while Thompson and Poyser's stewardship of the product is heroic, there's only one genius here, and that's Green.
Other soul singers — Franklin, Sam Cooke — have perhaps been as great. But no other great soul singer is as distinctive as Green. His vocals — not just his voice — are one of recorded pop's most brilliant instruments. That array of flutters, sighs, grunts, repetitions, and other effects transcends mere words even when in the service of a great lyric. That vocal brilliance is apparent on almost any Al Green record, but it's decades since it's been as consistently gripping as it is on Lay It Down.
But what about songs from and about the city ...?