Al Green’s Secular Comeback Was Made Complete With Lay It Down

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Al Green tinkered with the formula a bit on Lay It Down, issued May 27, 2008 as his third album for the Blue Note. Green’s two earlier projects for the label made a conscious attempt to recreate some of the magic from his glory years in the 1970s. Here, longtime producer and song collaborator Willie Mitchell was replaced by hip-hoppers James Poyser and Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. Green also brought in a small parade of current R&B stars to share vocal duties with him, à la Carlos Santana’s Supernatural.

Sounds like a recipe for a sell-out, right? You can relax: Lay It Down was not only a “classic” Al Green album, these new-school producers actually ended up coming closer to Mitchell’s vintage Hi Records production than Mitchell himself had done for Blue Note. There were almost no modern touches that I can detect, and the accompaniment of Sharon Jones’ Dap-Kings Horns had the old Memphis Horns sound nailed solid. The classic snare/hi-hat interplay, the church organ and rich guitar chords were back in full force, too.

Regardless of any changes made, the success of an Al Green album ultimately comes down to Green’s own performance; that hugely influential sound of his singing and his ebullient persona is at the very center of every performance he makes. It’s no understatement that Green’s groundbreaking work back in the ’70s put him at the tail end of of a line of great soul men that included Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding.

If there’s any doubt of whether Al Green still earned that distinction, it was quickly dispelled right from the opening title track on Lay It Down. A gospel-inspired slow burner tastefully supported by Larry Gold’s orchestration and the Dap-Kings Horns, Al sounded as committed as he ever was. He was squealing, pleading, screaming, stuttering – even laughing – more than he’d done since “Have A Nice Day” was the universal motto.

Elsewhere, you can make connections with Al Green’s hits of his golden era. “No One Like You” ended with a gospel coda that’s evocative of the one on “Love and Happiness.” “Just For Me” had that rhythm guitar motif found on “Tired of Being Alone.” “Stay With Me (By the Sea)” boasted that same hit-hat shuffle found on “Still In Love With Me.” Meanwhile, “What More Do You Want From Me” was practically the sequel to “Look What You Done For Me.”

You get the idea. These 11 new Al Green originals, 10 of which he co-wrote with the producers, recreated the feel of old, but didn’t copy them.

And about those guest soul crooners: True, Al brought in some of the better-known heirs to Green’s throne to share lead vocals, such as John Legend, Corrine Bailey Rae and Anthony Hamilton. But Green’s presence loomed so large that none of them made much of an impact compared to the real legend – save for Bailey Rae. She did a nice turn on the ballad “Take Your Time,” however, which suited her vocal style just as well as Green’s.

So, here’s the bottom line: If you’d been waiting for the secular Al Green to come back but found I Can’t Stop Stop and Everything’s OK to be wanting, Lay It Down was the place to embrace his music again. Green continued to inspire newer generations of great soul singers, but he remained the greater of all who’d followed him. With this 2008 release, his hold on the throne was still firm.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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