CD Review of Lay It Down by Al Green
Recommended if you like
Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack,
John Legend
Label
Blue Note
Al Green: Lay It Down

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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L
ike the rest of us, Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson was thrilled to hear of Al Green’s turn-of-the-century reunion with Willie Mitchell, the producer of his classic Hi Records releases – and like more than a few of us, he was a little underwhelmed by the albums that came out of that partnership’s renewal, 2003’s I Can’t Stop and 2005’s Everything’s OK. As the few who’d purchased his ‘90s comeback albums already knew, Green hadn’t lost a step vocally – but, as those same consumers also knew, hearing the Reverend do his thing against a modern R&B backdrop isn’t quite the same as listening to Al Green’s Greatest Hits. Recording with Mitchell – in the old Hi studios, no less – should have been the recipe for more classic Green songs, but I Can’t Stop and Everything’s OK – although both fine albums – didn’t represent a return to form so much as an expertly assembled facsimile of past glories.

The main culprit, at least as far as Thompson seems to have been concerned, was the modern sheen applied to those albums. He wasn’t wrong, either – in reaching back to the Hi sound, Green and Mitchell had the right idea, but the end result was too clean; most of Green’s best moments have been the product of the wonderful tension between his angelic vocals and the decidedly earthy instrumentation. If there’s such a thing as being too perfect, Green’s vocals could provide its musical definition; shoving a little dirt under their fingernails keeps things interesting, and the reunion albums failed to do that.

All of which brings us to Lay It Down, an 11-song collection produced by Thompson, pianist/organist James Poyser, and Green himself. The trio kept things scaled down for the sessions, utilizing a small combo consisting of Thompson, Poyser, guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford, and bassist Adam Blackstone, with guest appearances by the Dap-Kings Horns (and, this being a modern soul record, vocal cameos from young bucks Anthony Hamilton, John Legend, and Corinne Bailey Rae). As production decisions go, this was a bit of a no-brainer, but it works – the bright tones and crisp separation of Green’s recent efforts have been scuffed up and swamped down here, giving the album a warmth missing from roughly 95 percent of all R&B and/or soul recordings released since 1983. Sonically, it fits snugly against Green’s old work – but unlike more recent efforts, it doesn’t feel like a conscious imitation; rather, the productions and arrangements simply feel timeless. This isn’t an exercise in nostalgia, it’s a testimony.

Would that the same could be said for the songs themselves. You might find it curious that such a back-to-basics album took three years to finish, and you wouldn’t be alone; Thompson, for one, seemed to find Lay It Down’s protracted gestation immensely frustrating. But when you work with a legend, you’ve got to play by his rules, and Green is famous for making them up as he goes along, and not having a ton of patience for the recording process in general. Combine that with Thompson’s policy of carefully plotted imperfection – he reminded the band that the classic soul outfits didn’t have tuners, and instructed them to play the occasional bum note – and it’s a wonder this album ever came out at all. (It’s also tempting to wonder what might have happened if Thompson’s original plan, to bring Bill Withers out of retirement, had worked out.)

To hear Green tell it, he dashed off eight songs during the first session for Lay It Down, and was inspired to write “I’m Wild About You” after watching a nature documentary. The end result, as you might have already guessed, is a series of songs that sound effortless, but not in a good way; they’re solid, but not especially memorable, and though Green puts on a typically flawless vocal performance, he seems to be putting on a show rather than digging. It’s a relatively minor distinction, to be sure – but one that keeps Lay It Down from achieving its full potential. If you’re looking for some great barbecue music, this’ll do the trick – but if you’re hoping Green will break your heart and set your soul on fire, you’re liable to come away disappointed.

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