Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
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 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.
Love 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.
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 the 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.
♪ “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:
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 basking 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.
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 Can’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.”
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 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 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.