I'm going to come right out and say it: Al Green is my favorite singer of all-time. Of course, he was also a great songwriter who met his perfect match in producer Willie Mitchell, who not only assembled one of the greatest house bands ever to back him up (the Hodges Brothers, including Teenie on guitar, Charles on organ, Leroy on bass, plus former Booker T. & The M.G.'s drummer Al Jackson Jr. and his protégé Howard Grimes) but who also always got the seductive studio sound (especially the drums) just right. Female backing vocals and punchy horns were also essential components of the Hi sound, but above all else it was Green's one-of-a-kind voice that made his '70s records so special. After Al Green Is Blues, a solid but lesser first effort, Al Green began to assert his star power on Gets Next To You. In particular, the catchy, horn-heavy pop of “Tired Of Being Alone” showcased Green’s emerging songwriting talent while unleashing a striking falsetto; it also became Al’s introduction to the r&b charts, which he would soon dominate. Elsewhere, catchy backing vocals are the primary attraction of “Are You Lonely For Me Baby," while Johnny Taylor’s great gospel number “God Is Standing By” asserts Green's close ties to the church, which would only grow stronger over the years. “Can’t Get Next To You” and “Light My Fire” were radical - and highly successful - reworkings of Temptations and Doors classics, respectively, while on songs such as "Driving Wheel" and "You Say It" I love the band's great grooves almost as much as Green's voice; it's hard to stand still during these two. These songs and several others have a funky energy that some would claim his later work lacked, and this album is more up-tempo and less sultry than those ballad-dominated later efforts. And though the songwriting isn’t entirely consistent - a couple of songs seem like retreads and "Tired Of Being Alone" is the album's only classic track - the performances sure are, resulting in a very enjoyable showcase for a rising talent who was only just beginning to truly find his niche.
Let’s Stay Together (Hi Records '71, The Right Stuff ‘93) Rating: A-
To quote Robert Gordon's liner notes on the reissue: "This third record solidified Green's direction. After modeling himself on Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, he established his own style. Writing or co-writing seven of the album's nine tunes, his tendency toward funk is subsumed by his gentler side. Even the two upbeat songs - "I've Never Found A Girl" and "It 'Ain't No Fun To Be Me" - are treated with a balladeer's feel." I couldn't agree more, as songs such as "So You're Leaving" and "What Is This Feeling" are funky yet laid back, led by Green's increasingly understated vocal style and some inventive horns, while "Old Time Lovin'" saunters along and is easy to sing along to. Elsewhere, "La-La For You" shows that Green can do more with simple "la la las" than most singers could do with Bob Dylan's entire songbook, while "Judy" likewise relies more on a seductive mood than a memorable melody. However, though the songwriting on this album is occasionally underdeveloped, that certainly can't be said about the superlative "Let's Stay Together," which was Green's first #1 hit and became his signature song (in part due to Tina Turner and Quentin Tarantino). Damn, what can I say about this beautifully lush and sexy song other than that it's freakin' perfect - except maybe that its lyric is more complex than what would seem at first. The album's other great song - like the previous album, I'd call all the other songs good or really good without quite rising to greatness - is “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart.” In a masterful performance, Green transforms the Bee Gees original into 6+ minutes of breathtaking beauty. With his voice barely rising above a whisper (with the tutoring of Mitchell, Green gradually figured out that the softer he sang the more effective his voice was), Green's pleading falsetto floats around the words in a wonderfully ethereal way, turning a schmaltzy ballad into an enduring testament that's sad and beautiful beyond words. As usual, the Hi house band shines throughout the album, providing perfect, horn-heavy accompaniment while never overstating their case, and unlike his peers on the Motown assembly line (except for Stevie Wonder) Green was proving himself to be an incredibly consistent album artist as well as a spectacular singles specialist.
I'm Still In Love With You (Hi Records ’72, The Right Stuff ’93) Rating: A+
Al Green’s fourth and most popular album sees him mellowing even more, as Green trades in some grit in favor of an increasingly lush, string-heavy sensuality. "I'm Glad You're Mine" and "Look What You Done For Me" are the album's only significantly upbeat songs, but since I prefer his ballads to his funkier side this strategy is fine by me. The album peaks immediately with the stunning title track, which I'd argue is every bit as great as "Let's Stay Together." His falsetto can send shivers, but his perfect phrasing is another rarely remarked upon asset. For example, on this song Green's six second pause from "spending my day" to "thinking 'bout you, girl" is just perfect - I don't know why, it just is. Elsewhere, "Love And Happiness" is another well known track that's led by its repetitive groove, but when the groove (accentuated by Jackson Jr.'s hi-hat accents) is this good you don't want it to end, especially when you add those wonderfully moody keyboards and Green's peerless falsetto into the equation. "What A Wonderful Thing Love Is" follows next and is as good an example as any how Green delivered great album tracks instead of merely good ones here. When he holds the "with you" note I can practically see the butter melting, while his cover of Kris Kristofferson's "For The Good Times" is equally outstanding. Lasting for over six never-boring minutes, lush strings add a lullaby-like ambiance to this bittersweet ballad, which can damn near bring a tear to my eye. Alas, his cover of Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" is less impressive, being a pleasant but fairly perfunctory rendition that fails to improve upon the original, while "Simply Beautiful" boasts almost no melody at all. Fortunately, not much is needed when Green is on top of his vocal game, which he definitely is both here and on "One Of These Good Old Days," which has a majestic feel and a rhythmic flow that's tough to top. As for those upbeat songs previously mentioned, "I'm Glad You're Mine" is light and enjoyable, led by its slinky rhythms, while "Look What You Done For Me" is a perfect pop crossover hit that's carried by Green's flawless falsetto and arguably the catchiest horn arrangement ever. Throughout the album the backing vocals, which were utilized less frequently on Let's Stay Together, are again out in full force, and Green sings with a spectacularly seductive confidence. His squeals often say more than any mere words ever could, and often it's the small things that make this album special, such as the way the moody keyboards, economical guitar, and brisk backbeats kick in one after another just right on “Love And Happiness.” In short, the subtle charms of I'm Still In Love With You are damn near impossible to deny, especially if you're in the right situation with that someone special, for above all else I’m Still In Love With You is a mighty celebration of bedroom bliss.
Call Me (Hi Records ’73, The Right Stuff ’93) Rating: A+
The winning streak continued on Call Me, his fifth and arguably best album. This album is far more diverse than I'm Still In Love With You, its primary competition, which is why I'd give it the slight edge overall. After all, although it contains three terrific top ten hits ("Call Me," “Here I Am,” and “You Ought To Be With Me”), like the previous album this one is notable for its GREAT album tracks. To again quote Robert Gordon's liner notes: "Have You Been Making Out O.K." is simply an overlooked classic. Green features his higher register, breathing the words as if they were sleeping angels he doesn't want to wake. "Did the morning sun warm your soul?" he asks, and we can see the light and feel the bedsheets...much of the imagery and feel of this song is also found in "Your Love Is Like The Morning Sun"." Both of these beautiful songs see Green's singing at its softest and most sensitive, while on "Stand Up" Green briefly leaves the bedroom for an uplifting, up-tempo call to arms that reminds us that this was recorded during the Vietnam War era. Al also brilliantly tackles two country classics with near-definitive renditions of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Surprisingly, these songs fit snugly in with the rest of the album, as Al tosses aside genre distinctions such as "soul" and "country". This is simply great music, whether it be brilliantly seductive secular music such as the hauntingly ethereal title track or the sublime "You Ought To Be With Me" (featuring arguably his most fabulous falsetto vocal ever), greasy up-tempo pop such as on "Here I am," or the spiritual music found on “Jesus Is Waiting,” which impressively foreshadows Green's future direction singing gospel music and provides a fittingly fine ending to arguably Green's greatest album.
Livin' For You (Hi Records ’73, The Right Stuff ’93) Rating: A-
Continuing his remarkable pace of two great albums per year, Livin’ For You is a slight step down from its immediate predecessors, meaning that it’s merely great. The top 40 hits this time were the romantic title track and “Let’s Get Married,” an upbeat song with typically seductive rhythms and catchy female backing vocals. The problem with listening to all of Al Green's albums one after another - and it really hit me on this album - is that he's somewhat one-dimensional; he basically had two types of songs, either sensuous ballads or lightly funky groovers. However, he's so great at his chosen style(s) that his minor flaws as an artist are easily overlooked. Besides, Green throws in enough little nuances on Livin' For You to distinguish this album from the preceding ones. For one thing, Green's voice and the ever-so-silky strings are more up front in the mix, and there are some surprising tempo changes throughout the album. For example, the title track's "I'm dreaming for you" chorus is more upbeat than the rest of the song, the change in direction at near the 3-minute mark of "Home Again" is quite frankly jarring, and "My God Is Real," which takes a while to get going, picks up considerably after about a minute and a half. Additionally, Green is stretching out with longer songs, sometimes overly so, though the ambitious album closer "Beware" wears its 8+ minutes exceedingly well. The subtly sinuous grooves on this one are never boring, as the song highlights the marvelous Hi Rhythm Section while Green chimes in with his own delectably understated guitar counterpoints. Elsewhere, we get more typically great Green fare: “Free At Last” is carried by an especially intense Green vocal and the usual silken strings, and Green musters one of his most sweetly intimate vocals ever on "So Good To Be Here" - whoever he wrote this song for must've fainted upon first hearing it. As with almost all of his previous cover songs, Green totally transforms “Unchained Melody” (my wedding song!), and though it doesn't top the Righteous Brothers' flawless original version it's different enough to be considered successful on its own terms. In short, Livin' For You was another consistently strong set that merely lacked the sublime high points of I’m Still In Love With You and Call Me.
Explores Your Mind (Hi Records ’74, The Right Stuff ’94) Rating: B+
Shorter songs are back, as are more up-tempo tunes, while covers and gospel songs are out. As on the previous release, Al at times appears to be coasting on easy listening autopilot, but the end result is another enjoyable album; let’s face it, he’s just sticking to the style he’s best at. The album begins with the slight but effortless top 10 hit “Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy),” on which Al's voice again makes magic with mere "sha la las". In addition, as with most of the songs here strings are omnipresent, as, perhaps influenced by the lush sound of Philly soul (Spinners, O'Jays, Stylistics, etc.), strings were becoming more prominent with each successive album. Next up is the up-tempo non-hit “Take Me To The River,” which would prove even more enduring as both Syl Johnson and the Talking Heads would later take it to the bank. With Al Jackson Jr. not around this time (tragically, he would be murdered the following year), Howard Grimes gets the opportunity to shine on two toe tapping highlights, as both "The City" and "Stay With Me For Ever" are powered by Grimes' subtly stunning stick work. The album's other standout track is "Hangin' On," a disco-y number notable for it's catchy "I'm in heaven" chorus, but "God Bless Our Child" and "One Night Stand" sound too much like retreads to me (of "Unchained Melody" and "Take Me To The River," respectively). Don't get me wrong, they're still enjoyable, as Green and co.'s performances can't be faulted, but I'm judging him based on the high standards he's previously set. Though they're also enjoyable (damn, has this guy ever done anything that's not at least mildly enjoyable?), "I'm Hooked On You" and "School Days" are other songs that, at least from a musical standpoint, Green could've churned out in his sleep. The album's meager 30-minute running time offers further evidence that new ideas were harder to come by this time out, as perhaps Green's pace had gotten too prolific and burnout was starting to set in. Fortunately, Green in cruise control mode is still better than 95% of anything else out there.
Al Green Is Love (Hi Records ’75, Demon Records ’99) Rating: A-
To quote Alan Robinson's especially well-written (and therefore, especially quotable) liner notes: "It's 1975, and Al Green's career is in something of a slow decline. The Al Green/Hi Records 'Sound', which had been so refreshing and daringly different when he'd made his big breakthrough several years earlier, had become formulaic." Fortunately, though songs such as "Rhymes," "Oh Me, Oh My (Dreams In My Arms)," and "I Gotta Be More" offer fairly standard Green fare, elsewhere Green delivers several more daring surprises. Not that those aforementioned songs aren't modestly enjoyable, too, but he's done similar stuff before, and much better. So why the high A- rating? Well, "L-O-V-E (Love)," for starters, which begins yet another Al Green album with a flawless sing along pop song. The string arrangements that had been coming increasingly to the fore simply dominate this and many of the other songs musically, but of course it's Green's voice that provides the album's primary pleasure. "There Is Love," "Could I Be The One," and "I Wish You Were Here" are each overlooked gems, as Green sings these soft, slowly burning ballads in the creamiest of falsettos. Elsewhere, on "Love Ritual" (again Robinson) "the band cooked up an exotic rhythm quite unlike anything in the Green oeuvre," while "The Love Sermon" and "I Didn't Know" saw Green stretching out considerably. The latter song is slow and sexy and has its moments, but it is the former that is arguably the album's centerpiece song. Despite having a minimal melody, "The Love Sermon" sees the Reverend Al in full on preacher mode, giving a riveting performance that's as unsettling as it is mesmerizing. You see, the previous year saw a landmark event in Green's life, as a former female companion threw hot grits on Green before killing herself. Now, needless to say, this caused quite a bit of soul searching from Al, and since he was becoming increasingly spiritual anyway it stands to reason that this watershed event gave Al a further push towards fully embracing God. Much of this album lyrically concerns this inner conflict (i.e. his "difficulty reconciling the sacred with the secular"), as His pull was growing increasingly stronger. The end result is an at times difficult and inconsistent listen, but this is also one of his most fascinating albums, and it has several superb high points that are unlike anything else he'd ever done before.
The Belle Album (Hi Records ’77, The Right Stuff '95) Rating: A
After a couple of merely albums (Full of Fire and Have a Good Time) that aren't among his best, Al Green regrouped with The Belle Album, probably his best album since Call Me. My problem with this album is that I always have trouble getting past “Belle,” the album’s first song. Not because it’s bad, mind you, but because it’s so damn great that I always have to hear it again and again (its spectacular fadeout ending is especially resonant). This song, which is serious contender for my favorite Al Green song, immediately hits on the heart of the album when Green sings “Belle, it’s you that I want, but it’s Him that I need.” “Him” is the big guy upstairs, and the line again tells of Green’s long-standing predicament: pleasures of the flesh versus pleasures of the spirit. After listening to this album it isn’t hard to figure out that He would win, for He is omnipresent on every song here. Indeed, Green would soon turn away from what we call “secular music” to a career of preaching and gospel singing, but thankfully he left us with this one last masterpiece. Self-produced, Green has obviously learned well from mentor Willie Mitchell, since the album’s sound is as superlative as if Mitchell had produced it, in particular Ardis Hardin’s way-up-front drums. Aside from the first and last song, the album is more upbeat than past Green classics, perhaps because He has freed up Green’s restless spirit and upped his energy level. These eight longish tracks take their time to evolve, and the album as a whole is perhaps less immediate than, say, Call Me, as a couple of songs coast along on easy going but effortlessly inviting (and funky) grooves. So let's call this one only a hair less great than those early '70s albums on which she usually won out over Him. After all, the joyously upbeat mood of songs such as “Loving You” and “All N All” are infectious enough to make even someone as non-religious as I into a devout believer, and as “Dream” slowly fades away you’ll find yourself wishing that you'd never wake up from the dream-like state conjured by this soul master.
Greatest Hits (Hi Records ’75, The Right Stuff '95) Rating: A+
One of the greatest soul albums of all time got better on the 1995 reissue, as five additional gems (“Livin’ For You,” “Sha La La (Make Me Happy),” “L-O-V-E (Love),” “Full Of Fire,” and “Belle”) were added to the original ten masterpieces. Though most of Al Green’s ‘70s studio albums are exemplary, his singles were usually the highlights of his albums, so this singles compilation is therefore the single most perfect example of his seductive charm. Running the gamut of classic tracks such as "Tired Of Being Alone," “Call Me,” “I’m Still In Love With You,” “Love And Happiness,” “You Ought To Be With Me,” and “Let’s Stay Together,” here extended past five minutes, all of these songs share a common thread meant for some serious bedroom business. His grittier side is also shown on his cover of the Temptations’ “I Can’t Get Next To You” and his own “Here I am (Come And Take Me),” and all of these tracks (excepting the self-produced “Belle”) are brilliantly produced by Willie Mitchell, who elegantly emphasizes the fabulous Hi Rhythm section, in particular the peerless snare beats of Al Jackson Jr. (the greatest soul drummer who ever lived) and Howard Grimes. Green's track record of 11 mostly-great albums in a mere eight years should embarrass latter day artists who take years between albums, proof positive that if you know what you're doing you don't need to spend endless hours twiddling around in the studio. I'm going to say it one last time: I love Al Green. But I also resent him, for the last truly great soul singer was so consistently spectacular that he's all but ruined contemporary soul music for me. I mean, even when listening to one of the good ones today I usually find myself saying "he's good, but he's no Al Green." I doubt we’ll ever see the likes of this guy again. Note: Fortunately, Green made a secular comeback that has thus far yielded I Can’t Stop (2003), Everything’s OK (2005), and Lay It Down (2008), the first two produced by old mentor Willie Mitchell, the latter produced by Questlove and James Poyser and featuring several guest appearances and a more contemporary sound. Although not up to the standard of his classic ‘70s work, his voice still sounds great on these fine albums and it’s certainly good to have the old master back. In fact, I saw him perform with (an admittedly spent) B.B. King a few years back and Al basically blew poor B.B. off the stage.
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