KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

AL GREEN Part 5 – He Can’t Stop / In Conclusion

After more than a decade recording religious music, Al Green slowly returned to the soul and R&B sound that made him famous. During his “gospel era” he still incorporated some pop and soul sounds into his music, but the main focus of those records was to praise Jesus. As I mentioned in Al Green Photo (circa 1995)my previous post, that’s not a genre I’m overly familiar with. I’ve been exposed to enough religious music, however, to know what moves me & what doesn’t…and Green’s releases throughout the ‘80s were nowhere close to the classics he released in the ‘70s. They were hit-and-miss affairs with no truly essential songs, saved only by his astounding voice (which somehow seems to get stronger with age). Heading into the ‘90s, he attempted to join together the liturgical lyrical content of his recent albums with some secular material, all set to a slick modern production sound. At first the results were mediocre but things quickly improved, and even though there are only a handful of all-time great songs during this period that could hold their own against his greatest hits, there are plenty of noteworthy tracks on all of the albums I’ll discuss here.

Al Green - Love Is RealityLove Is Reality (1992) was produced by contemporary Christian/modern R&B producer Tim Miner who probably delivered exactly what the record label (Word, a subsidiary of Epic/Sony) wanted: a record with an of-its-time, slick, synthetic sonic sheen and a huge electronic drum sound. I’m sure there are plenty of people who love that sound & probably adore this album. I’m not saying they’re wrong, but this is not the type of music that I usually respond to. The songs range from pretty good to forgettable with only Green’s voice warranting repeated listening. There are a few songs worth discussing but I decided not to include an audio sample since there wasn’t anything I considered highlight-worthy.

Notable Tracks:

  • “Love Is Reality” – A bouncy midtempo horn-inflected tune with a catchy melody & nice group backing vocals. Over a programmed rhythm track Green’s voice continues to impress, especially as he whoops & hollers during the otherwise instrumental section.
  • “You Don’t Know Me” – An upbeat shuffle with programmed drums & choir-like backing vocals. Lyrically, it’s the first overtly religious song here.
  • “Again” – A slow waltz that’s in the same ballpark as Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” (but not nearly as great as that masterpiece). It features more religious lyrics (“I’ll hear your prayer & take you back again”) as well as a children’s choir.
  • “A Long Time” – A strings-and-piano ballad that references gospel standard “Amazing Grace.” The synthetic production doesn’t help, but his vocal performance is typically strong and it’s a very good soulful & spiritual song.

In 1994 a co-worker often played a recently-released Al Green album called Don’t Look Back, which was only available in the US as an import. Several of Al Green - Your Heart's In Good Handsthe songs jumped out at me whenever he played it (he blasted it from his cubicle so I was a captive audience) but I was never able to secure a copy of the CD for myself. A year later, via Green’s new deal with MCA Records, he released Your Heart’s In Good Hands (1995), which featured 8 of that earlier album’s 13 tracks, along with 2 recordings that were exclusive to the new album. That leaves 5 Don’t Look Back songs still missing from my collection, but hopefully I got the best of that album. One glance at the credits, which indicates five sets of producers, would suggest that it’s an unfocused mess but fortunately there’s much more cohesion than you might initially expect. The production is still big (it was the mid-‘90s, after all) and there isn’t much in the way of organic instrumentation, but the songs are significantly stronger than its predecessor and everything’s tighter & more focused. It’s not a return to his peak ‘70s form (although vocally he hadn’t lost a step) but it’s everything you could hope for from an artist nearly 30 years into his recording career.

The Essentials:

♪     “Keep On Pushing Love” – Hip-Hop DJ & producer Arthur Baker, along with Tommy Faragher, give this track an instantly memorable pulsating rhythm. It has the feel of Green’s Hi Records classics (especially the use of organ & horns) with a modern flair. The simply fantastic groove won me over the first time I heard it.

♪     “Love Is A Beautiful Thing” – During the intro he intones “This is what I believe” over a programmed rhythm track, and he immediately draws us in with his positivity. I love the organ washing over everything as well as the chiming/scratching guitar patterns. This is another one that sounds like a modernized take on his ‘70s output, and that connection is made even clearer near the end when he throws out lyrical references to many of his biggest hits, like “Let’s Stay Together,” “Call Me” and “I’m Still In Love With You.” At nearly 5-1/2 minutes it’s a little too long but that didn’t take away from my enjoyment.

Other Notable Tracks:

  • “Your Heart’s In Good Hands” – One of the two songs not carried over from Don’t Look Back, it was overseen by noted jazz/pop musician & producer Narada Michael Walden. It’s catchy, midtempo urban pop with an electronic sheen. This is the kind of thing Michael Bolton might turn into an overwrought performance but Green’s vocal prowess makes it much more listenable than it otherwise might be. My biggest complaint is the running time of 6 minutes, which is at least 2 minutes longer than necessary.
  • “One Love” – One of several songs produced by David Steele & Andy Cox of Fine Young Cannibals and (English) Beat fame. The groove is completely programmed, especially that fake snare sound, but the horns are live, the groove is very cool and I love the female backing vocals. It has hints of Michael Jackson’s “Black And White.”
  • “Don’t Look Back” – A modern, slickly-produced (by Arthur Baker) cover of The Temptations’ Motown song, with the memorable hook of, “If you just put your hand in mine, we’re gonna leave all our troubles behind.” It’s far from the most soulful version of this song that I’ve heard but it’s still very good.
  • “What Does It Take” – I love the driving groove with funky guitar flourishes & horn blasts. It reminds me of Simply Red from that era. The rhythm is repetitive but I didn’t mind because it’s so good.

After several years out of the spotlight, Green returned in the new millennium with a pleasant surprise for his longtime fans: a reunion with producer/arranger/co-writer Willie Mitchell, who collaborated on all of his essential ‘70s albums, along with most of the musicians & vocalists from those Hi Records years. The first fruits of this reunion appeared on I Can’t Stop (2003), his first release for legendary jazz label Blue Note, which was Al Green - I Can't Stopbasking in the glow of the mega success of Norah Jones’ debut the previous year. I Can’t Stop didn’t reach the multi-platinum heights of his new label-mate but it did score Green his first Top 10 R&B album in nearly 3 decades. As with many reunions of classic bands, it’s difficult to recapture the magic that made them great in the first place, so while this record and its successor are delightful there’s no new ground broken here. Its success relies solely on the sympathetic accompaniment, the strong (but not brilliant) set of songs and Green’s ageless voice. This album seemed more impressive when I bought it in 2003, not having listened to his earlier albums for several years. Hearing it so soon after revisiting the bulk of his catalog, it’s an extremely enjoyable listen but also a reminder of how groundbreaking his ‘70s recordings with Mitchell and Hi Records really were. That probably sounds like a backhanded compliment, but the truth is that I like it very much, as you’ll see in this lengthy list of noteworthy songs.

Notable Tracks:

  • “I Can’t Stop” – Right from the start it sounds like classic smooth Al Green, with muted production, a nice horn chart, sweeping strings & a catchy melody.
  • “Play To Win” – An upbeat blues tune with an insistent bass line. I love the tight horn section, and how his voice is gritty yet pretty.
  • “I’ve Been Waitin’ On You” – Funky, tight & upbeat with blaring horns & a steady, stomping beat. I really like the flanged guitar accents as well as the “Where have you gone?” refrain. He hits some impressive notes on this song.
  • “You” – Features a subtly chugging rhythm and a cool chorus (“I love you…and it won’t go away”) with horn accompaniment.
  • “Not Tonight” – A pretty & tender ballad that continued to grow on me with each listen. I’m constantly amazed how his voice still had such command as he approached 60. His subtle reading of “Don’t get on that train…baby not tonight” is breathtaking.
  • “My Problem Is You” – A slow bluesy/jazzy ballad that’s also the longest song on the record at 6-1/2 minutes. The sparse arrangement allows his voice to do its thing, and the subtle strings & tasty organ solo add to the atmosphere. It may be a long song but it breathes & uses its running time wisely.
  • “I’ve Been Thinkin’ Bout You” – A bluesy & funky driving groove with soaring horns and a searing guitar solo. Nothing original but features a solid arrangement & a very catchy melody.
  • “I’d Write A Letter” – Bouncy & playful with a lovely repeated piano figure and the recurring phrase, “If I were you.” Has a singsong-y, almost childlike quality.
  • “Too Many” – A barroom jazz-blues with a playful horn chart & bouncy piano runs. It’s a different arrangement for him, making it somewhat of a standout here, and a fun way to close out the album.

Green’s second album for Blue Note, Everything’s OK (2005), follows the template of its predecessor so closely that it could have been titled I Still Al Green - Everything's OKCan’t Stop. Willie Mitchell and the Hi Records musicians are once again on board for another set of songs that hark back to his ‘70s recordings. There are two changes here and neither has to do with the music: (1) Green is credited as “The Reverend Al Green” on the cover & in the writing credits even though it’s a secular soul/R&B album, and (2) it’s a more concise collection, with the same number of songs (12) as I Can’t Stop in 6 fewer minutes. Had Everything’s OK come first I might be more enamored of it, but following so soon after I Can’t Stop it simply comes across as more of the same. Not that I’m complaining since the music & vocals are as good as ever, yet there aren’t as many memorable songs this time. If this is your first exposure to Al Green you’ll likely be impressed (and feel the need to explore his back catalog), but within the context of his impressive discography it’s just “OK.”

Notable Tracks:

  • “Everything’s OK” – A slight disco beat with accents, strings, horns & funky guitar are highlights of the title track. It’s not far off from “I Can’t Stop” although with fewer melodic hooks, but the music is catchy.
  • “Perfect To Me” – Sounds like an update of his earlier masterpiece “God Blessed Our Love” with a slow, soulful waltz tempo, sweet romantic strings & bluesy guitar licks. Nothing original but his voice is fantastic
  • “Real Love” – A 5+ minute very slow waltz that makes great use of its running time. I love the way the strings & muted horns blend together as well as the chiming guitar figure as he sings, “I got a real…real…love for you.” Great dynamics as the music dips & soars.
    [Al Green – “Real Love”] [audio http://k007.kiwi6.com/hotlink/y74sug9jpy/Real_Love_Al_Green_.mp3]
  • “Be My Baby” – Uptown jazzy soul with a propulsive groove & blasting horns. It’s bright & poppy, a real grower, especially when he sings, “Won’t you be my lady? Won’t you be my baby, girl?”
  • “All The Time” – The verses are nothing special but I absolutely adore the chorus with female harmonies: “I do my very best, try to save the rest, all the time.” The hooks are sparse but they reveal themselves with each successive spin.

To date he has released one more album, Lay It Down (2008), but I never got a copy. It’s his third album for Blue Note and was produced by Al Green Photo (circa 2003)Questlove (of The Roots) and modern R&B producer/writer/musician James Poyser, reaching the Top 10 on the Pop chart and Top 5 R&B. I haven’t heard much about this album, but if anyone is a fan and thinks it’s worth checking out, let me know & I’ll consider buying it.

That wraps up my series on the legendary Al Green. When I was introduced to his music more than 2 decades ago, I was more of an obsessive collector and usually acquired most or all albums released by any artist I liked. That explains why I own 22 of his albums when the average fan is likely satisfied with a well-selected compilation. I am still a completest for numerous artists, but in hindsight I probably bought more Al Green albums than I needed. Had I entered his musical world in the last Al Green Photo (Ad For Everything's OK)10 years, I probably would have opted for a box set & maybe a handful of key albums. Don’t get me wrong, though; there are plenty of great album tracks I re-discovered through writing this series that I otherwise would have missed out on, so I’m very happy that I held on to all the CDs I’ve purchased over the years. I now have a better appreciation for the contributions that Willie Mitchell & the Hi Records musicians made to those classic albums, and my love of Green’s almost other-worldly vocals is deeper than it’s ever been. I urge anyone who only knows his biggest hits to give at least a couple of his individual albums a chance, especially those released between 1969 & 1976. Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read these posts. I hope your soul has been as inspired as mine by the music of Al Green.

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5 comments on “AL GREEN Part 5 – He Can’t Stop / In Conclusion

  1. Pingback: KamerTunesBlog Year In Review 2014 | KamerTunesBlog

  2. DanicaPiche
    October 28, 2015

    Great series, Rich. The FYC connection in this era is interesting. “I’ve Been Waitin’ On You” is a treat and I also listened to “Not Tonight” which sounded familiar even though I’m sure I hadn’t heard it before.
    His vocals are amazing through the decades. I wonder how he managed this accomplishment?
    Thanks for this series. Al Green is one of my favorites.

    Like

    • Thanks for reading this series, Danica. It was one of the least-visited of all the series I wrote, which is a shame simply because there’s so much incredible music in Al Green’s discography that deserves to be discovered by a wider audience. If it inspires you to explore his catalog then I’ll consider this a job well done.

      Liked by 1 person

      • DanicaPiche
        October 28, 2015

        Well, I don’t understand why this one was among the least-read. Al Green’s music is a gift to the world. I was happy to learn a lot more about his work from your series and I’ll be seeking out more. Your series is definitely a job well done.

        Like

      • I get the sense that Al Green is a “compilation” artist for many people, and the idea of a multi-art series on his entire discography probably seems like overkill to them. Even I think his work can probably be distilled into a well-curated 4-CD box set that wouldn’t leave out anything essential, but if someone just has his “Greatest Hits” they’re merely scratching the surface.

        Happy Halloween. Enjoy the weekend, which I’m sure is well=earned.

        Like

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