Album Review: Al Green, "Lay It Down" (Blue Note)
As comeback records go, Al Green's 2003 effort, "I Can't Stop," had the makings of a good one. Famed producer Willie Mitchell--who crafted Green's untarnished and timeless '70s albums for Hi Records--was even on board to shape the sounds. Unfortunately, that album ended up slightly schlocky, perhaps even a bit too rootsy for Green. For diehard fans, it was a decent fix, but for an Al Green record, it lacked style and finesse.
Enter producers Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson of the live hip-hop act The Roots and Philly keyboard player James Poyser, who, building on the current wave of turn-back-the-clock soul, make sure that the legendary lover has equally brilliant sounds to work with on "Lay It Down." Its sonics are stylishly stripped--but rich--approximating our idea of a late '60s Memphis soul record, but in new millennium high-resolution. With The Roots, session men from Joss Stone and Angie Stone's bands, and the Dap-King Horns (a Brooklyn brass outfit that works with soul singer Sharon Jones and has also graced soul revivals from Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse) backing Green, the playing is consistently old-school tight, tastefully funky and coolly restrained. Someone's having a good time, and that's catching. "Call Me," "I'm Still In Love With You" and "Let's Stay Together" might be the starting point here, but the album, initially sketched out in a songwriting session between the producers and Green at New York's Electric Lady studios, brings Green into the present day in a series of duets sung over sophisticated arrangements. He sings with lightweight British R&B songstress Corinne Bailey Rae on "Take Your Time" and smooth dude John Legend on "Stay with Me (By the Sea)." Those collabs aren't particularly magical, as Green's presence generally overwhelms the pretty window dressing of his young peers. The real strength of the album lies in the Reverend's ability to settle into the groove on songs like "You've Got the Love I Need," freak out on "I'm Wild About You" then hit inspired high notes and stutter like a madman on "It's Too Much." But the exquisite arrangements and lush backing vox are key, too--outfitting this legend in threads that suit him extra fine.