There is a short list of singers for whom I will spout the cliche “I’d gladly listen to him/her sing the phone book!”. There’s Marvin Gaye. Stevie Wonder. Michael McDonald (I see you laughing, but the proof lies in the fact that I’ve bought his last two hellaciously awful albums). And then there’s Al Green.
In several conversations I’ve had about who the greatest soul singer of all time is, Al’s name has been bandied about, and I can’t say I can put up a solid argument against. His heyday predated my existence, so I only got to experience songs like “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still in Love with You” as revered classics, but even the gospel-flavored material he scored occasional hits with in the Eighties and Nineties was well-performed, even if musically the songs weren’t the equal of his classic Hi Records period. Hey, how many folks do you know that can sing the shit out of an Al B Sure! production?
Over the past few years, Al’s reconnected with his pre-grits bath past, first by collaborating with peak-era producer Willie Mitchell on the well-received “I Can’t Stop”, then by releasing the solid follow-up “Everything’s OK”. His latest album, “Lay it Down”, attempts to merge his past with his present, and does so quite wonderfully. It’s not one of those albums that will make you jump up and slap your momma across the forehead, but you will marvel at the fact that the man still can induce tingles in the skin forty years after his recording debut.
Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and right-hand man James Poyser man the boards for this release, and they thankfully don’t turn The Reverend into a “boom bap” or even a “neo-soul” guy. They got a crackin’ band together and made a classic-sounding Al Green album. It may be a slight step down from Al’s classic material, but given the current soul music climate, I’ll take it.
There are guests sprinkled throughout the set, but Thompson and Poyser wisely don’t turn “Lay it Down” into a Santana-esque star-studded collabothon. Anthony Hamilton (the modern-day singer best equipped to carry on Al’s legacy) provides the chorus vocals on the pillow-soft title track and pops up again to duet on the punchy “You Got the Love I Need”, Corinne Bailey Rae provides a nice female counterpoint to Al’s sultry growl on “Take Your Time”, and “Stay With Me (By The Sea)” finds Al and John Legend singing over one of those grooves that will instantly transport you to a lawn chair in some backyard on a Sunday afternoon.
Those four tracks stand out the most because of the guest vocalists, but that’s not to say that the Reverend couldn’t hold this album down on his own. “What More Do You Want From Me” suffers from a case of oversimplified lyrics (actually, the whole album does, but who cares about lyrics when Al Green is singing?), but it’s another one of those back-porch grooves. And have I yet mentioned the man’s voice?? He can stutter and speak gibberish like he does on “Too Much” and still command the listener’s attention, while melting female listeners’ panties along the way.
“Lay it Down”‘s surprise top ten debut has served notice that there is a market of people that love real soul music that is woefully under-catered to. With a Lifetime Achievement award from BET coming at the end of this month and a smattering of new fans who were very likely conceived (hell, at this point, their *parents* may have been conceived) to his music, it’s a very good time to be Al Green and he deserves every single accolade he and this album are receiving.