AL GREEN / “Lay It Down”

al green 23.png I’m a devotee of the classic Al Green sound. Al’s vocals and melodies are always tender, sensuous and lush, and like any self-respecting slow jam fan, I love that. But it’s something unspoken and hard to describe about his rhythms that makes him really special. Al’s voice is up there in the foreground, crooning sweet nothings about summer nights or soft pillows or the scent of his lady’s skin-care products, meanwhile, there’s this subtle but persistent tension building in the background. The snare drum hitting dry and hard; the guitar lines twisting and coiling; the hi-hat ticking steadily. Listening to the rhythms of classic Al Green is something like holding your breath: there’s a constant, exquisite tightness, a push-and-pull that never resolves itself in either direction. A lot of that is because Al—at heart—was, is and always will be a preacher. He understands the vagaries of the pulpit: the necessary ebb and flow of a phrase; the rise and fall of the dramatic moment. Al knows when to whisper (frequently) and he knows when to scream (not often at all, but enough to keep you guessing). On record, the instruments—the strings, the organ, the guitar, the drum and the bass—are his choir. We, of course, are his congregation. This is a Contemporary post and we’re going to get to the new songs in a minute, but for right now (just to make sure we’re all in the appropriate mindset) here’s an example of what I mean by ‘the classic Al Green sound.’ (I’m intentionally avoiding the hits—I don’t want anyone thinking ahead or assuming anything.) Let’s talk about “The Love Sermon” from 1975’s Al Green Is Love. The record begins with a string flourish, a pretty one. But classic Al, as I said, is really about rhythmic tension, and so we have the kick and the snare thudding along in time with the strings. Once, twice, three times and then four. The tension builds with each lick of the drum. And then, just like that, the drummer eases into the main groove, the tension dissipates, everything gets all pretty and gentle and the song proper begins. It’s a classic Al Green beginning: gorgeous on the surface, heavy and uncertain just beneath. And guess what else? The man hasn’t even started singing. When he finally does start singing…my God! What can you say really? Like the title goes, it’s a sermon. “Love,” my man explains, “is the dimension between time and feeling. The distance from heaven to earth.” Love is the dimension between time and feeling? The distance from heaven to earth? What? I mean, what?! He’s dead serious too. But then, no sooner does he drop that gem on us, he adds, “Well, that’s my understanding.” Then he chuckles in a self-deprecating manner and says, “I pray on it.” Fucking Al Green.

* * *
al green 22.jpg So now it’s 2008 and I’m hearing that Questlove (producer, DJ, hip-hop historian and drummer for The Roots) and James Poyser (keyboardist, songwriter and main instrumental force behind D’Angelo’s classic Voodoo LP) have somehow, someway hooked up with the good Reverend Al himself and there’s an album coming. The album, they say, is not just good, it’s great. It’s a return to form; it’s got the classic Al Green sound; blah, blah, blah, etc., etc., etc. If I’ve heard that story once (and not just about Al), I’ve heard it a thousand times. Then one morning a couple weeks ago, I’m on Amazon’s homepage and there’s the album. I’m not even considering buying it – Al hasn’t made an album I really liked since Belle, and that dropped in ’77. But there’s no charge to sample songs, right? I click the link. The first song is the title track, “Lay It Down.” I listen. My reaction: “Hmm, OK. So they’re serious.” I click the second track, “Just For Me.” I listen. My reaction: “Really? Are they going to keep this up?” I scroll down to “Take Your Time.” I listen. My reaction: “Damn. I’m shook.” Want to know what I clicked next? The link that says ‘Buy Now.’
* * *
al green 25.jpg To make a long story kinda medium-ish, Lay It Down is an unqualified success. By ‘unqualified,’ I’m saying it’s a damn good Al Green album. Not ‘good for 2008,’ not ‘better than all his recent stuff,’ or anything like that. It’s good, period. Which begs a question. How did Questlove and Poyser manage to do something (get Al to sound as good as he last did in 1977) that no one else, including Al himself, as managed to do in over two decades? Here’s what I think happened. I think they approached things backwards, from a traditional perspective, at least. The normal way to do things is to write some songs, then get the musicians, then find a studio and then record the songs. Quest and Poyser started from the end. They wanted a certain sound – the classic Al Green sound. So they went back and studied every classic Al Green album: they studied the production, the mixing, the methodology of the instrumentation, etc. They weren’t thinking songs (harmony, melody, rhythm), they were thinking sonic characteristics. They asked themselves: what makes Al sound like Al? The first thing they decided—thank God—was Al sounds nothing like anything that currently passes for R&B. They also decided, despite hip-hop’s penchant for sampling Al Green songs, that Al sounds absolutely nothing like hip-hop. Again, thank God. The last thing anyone in their right mind wants to hear is Al trying to sound ‘current.’ A third thing they decided—and this is crucial—is that pacing is central to Al’s sound. That doesn’t mean Al’s songs have to be slow or fast or mid-tempo. It means, within the tempo, there must be that push-and-pull I talked about earlier. That tension. There must be a feeling that the rhythm is restrained yet forceful; gentle yet powerful. Al describes it perfectly when he says about Questlove’s drumming, “[He] plays on the crest. He wouldn’t let anything go too fast, but he wouldn’t let it go too slow.” Which is exactly the ‘it’ of Al’s sound. That balance, the careful walk on the edge between too much and not enough is the essential element of classic Al Green, then and now. Joyously, wondrously and thankfully, it’s there in just about every song from Lay It Down. In the end, Quest (on drums), Poyser (keys) and Al (voice) say they went into the studio and just played. They pre-wrote nothing, had no pre-conceived idea of what they were going to play. They just jammed until things started to coalesce into songs. Once they got going, they could hardly stop. “We were spitting out songs right and left,” Al says. After the first marathon recording session, Al went back to his hotel room too exhausted to even decide what to eat and fell asleep hungry. These cats may have been ‘just playing,’ as they say, but it’s important to note that they were playing within a certain set of characteristics. They were playing with the feeling, the objective and the tension of Al’s classic music. I also get the feeling that, as they were playing, Quest had this little question bouncing around in his mind: “Would I sample this?” If the answer was yes, he knew they were playing in that essential classic style. If the answer was no, they’d have to head in a different direction. Only time will tell if Lay It Down will eventually be viewed as a worthy addition to the classic Al Green pantheon or simply a decent late-career album. But for now, the record’s on sale at Amazon and I’m having a hard time thinking of a better way for you to spend your next ten bucks. —Mtume ya Salaam
             PLASTIC AIN’T METAL              
al green 20.jpg Mtume, welcome back. Honeymoon’s over. Let’s not romanticize Reverend Al. Not a one of those songs is the equal of “The Love Sermon.” Hell, add them all up together and you still ain’t got half of what you get from “The Love Sermon.” I know you know I got a theory as to why I think that’s the case. (Y’all might want to cover the children’s ears/eyes, or at least understand my warning that I’m about to dive head first into dangerous waters. Take heed and govern yourself accordingly.) (Also, I strongly urge Al Green fans to check out this 8-minute video on the making of Al Green Lays It Down.) Al Green, classic Al Green, was about the tension between sex and spirituality. Wait, let me correct that sentence. Al Green was all about the classic tension between the reality of sex and the desire for spirituality. In the Bible, sex is equated with man’s fall and failure, and spirituality with man’s redemption—of course the Bible don’t say too much positive about women’s redemption, condemning them to the pain of childbirth and ordering them to follow their husband’s leadership (since women’s leadership is a temptation to sin) and so forth ad nauseam. In general, most religions teach either abstinence and/or strong restrictions on sexual activity. America professes to be a Christian nation but the underbelly is pornographic. Bipolar America looks for both the instant gratification of sex and immediately thereafter the eternal redemption of spirituality. It’s almost too torturous for any one body to stand or withstand—especially if that particular body used to be a sexy soul singer and is now a redeemed Reverend. Why in the world would any of us expect him to sing like he used to sing? Mtume, it’s not just the production values, it’s also the intent and the experiences that form the basis for the performance. Now, y’all can say what you want about sex. Y’all can dress it up, romanticize it, televise it, pornagraphicize it, Hollywoodize it, whatever. Don’t matter. Because sex, classic sex, at its best is some funky shit. The mythic spiritual communication between two bodies ain’t what it’s really about. What it’s really about is some heavy coupling that leaves the room stinking in the afterglow. Where y’all think the term funky come from—and why something that stinks would be a term of high complement as in, “Man, that’s funky!”?!!! Do we really mean that something is good because it gives one the sensation of smelling the after aroma of sex? Ahh, that would be “yeah,” that’s exactly what we mean. We mean good sex is good and anything that reminds us of good sex is, well...well, it too is good. And ain’t nothing more funky than when two individuals not only agree by mutual desire (AKA “lust”) to go into the odor making business but also succeed so strongly that everybody that pass within a hundred feet of their manufacturing can immediately tell the quality of their product. Mtume, classic Al wasn’t about no romantic evenings, unless you using “romance” in the euphemistic sense, you know saying “romance” to keep from saying fucking. Ask all them womens who was throwing panties at Al. Hell, ask that sister that threw them hot grits at Al. al green 26.jpg Don’t forget, roses got thorns. Indeed, a rose shorn of thorns, no matter how pretty it smells, ain’t really a rose because a rose without thorns ain’t a rose, just like romance without fucking ain’t what classic Al Green was about. Man, you should have seen him jumping around, crawling around, tearing off his clothes, sweating and begging and pleading, and popping his pelvis and shit. Back in the day there wasn’t no question what classic Al Green was about. You said, “Al hasn’t made an album I really liked since Belle.” Well, I can tell what you like to do! Belle was when Al stood at the crossroads and took off on down the road to Jesus. I just got one question: is that Reverend Al Green coming up the road trying to find his way back or is he just passing through for a hot minute, momentarily revisiting his old stomping grounds? I think he was just passing through, sort of like a memory of a lover do at a certain moment every once in a great while, a memory that cause you to pause, maybe even quiver a little bit, and then bite your lower lip, shake your head and then move on—or if it’s recent, might even momentarily temp you to pull out that cell phone and punch in that particular number that don’t take no particular effort for you to remember ‘cause it’s still on speed dial. You know what I’m saying? Some few of us have married those lovers (and by “few” I mean some very, very few) but for most of us, such lovers are but a memory, albeit a physical as well as a psychological memory. (Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as physical memory. Your body do recall certain experiences.) Tell the truth, shame the devil. I believe Al was kind of remembering a time when singing about sex was not just a memory but rather a diary of his daily activities. I don’t believe he’s back, he was just reminiscing for a minute—we’ll know when he’s really back. Won’t be no “bout a doubt it.” There will be thorns on the roses, there’ll be both pain and pleasure in his voice. It won’t be the plastic of memory but rather the metal of revelation. —Kalamu ya Salaam P.S. Without going off, the other thing I should mention is that none of these songs as songwriting approaches classic Al Green. Like they say, you can’t force a feeling and you can’t just write a great song because you in the studio and got to come up with something. I agree they got to the sound but they didn’t get to the substance. Missing is the feeling and the fact—the sharing of real experiences in song and the crafting of a great song to express those feelings. That say, I also agree it’s the best Al since Belle, and it almost goes without saying that except for a very few notable recordings, Al’s “best since Belle” is a hell of a lot better than most everything else by almost every other male Soul singer since, well, since Belle.
         Happy to listen        
I agree with you and I don't. And as I read what you're saying, I feel like you agree with me and you don't. You say, "they got to the sound" and "it's the best Al since Belle" and you even say that "except for a very few notable recordings [Lay It Down] is a hell of a lot better than most everything else by almost every other male Soul singer" since 1977 (when Belle came out). A scheming publicist could take that and make a rave review out of it! Now let's talk about the sex thing. You're right, of course, that a major part of Al's classic music (and Marvin's and Prince's, etc.) is the tension between his intense Christian spirituality and intense lust for women. In Al's new music, that tension is certainly less explicit than back in the day, but I still feel it. A lot of it is in the grooves, too. It's not just a matter of what Al says or what he does during his personal time. It's there in the title track: listen to the way the organ and the strings rise and fall. That's a sound that immediately sounds stately, elegant, regal and, yes, religious. And then a multi-tracked Anthony Hamilton comes in there on the chorus; dude sounds like a church choir. No doubt. If you didn't speak English, I could easily convince you it was a spiritual they're singing. Another thing is this: Reverend Al uses a bit more euphemism than Regular Al did, but he's still speaking on the same topics. Here's a lyric from "Lay It Down":
You see, I love you for myself You got everything I need Ever since I started holding your hand I never seen such a smiling man You make me happy, baby!
OK. Let's get real here. Al is sixty-something year old man. Dude ain't smiling and grinning like a fool because some chick is holding his hand. You follow me? The chorus is "Lay it down / Let it go / Fall in love." What the hell do you think they're talking about? Housekeeping? Then there's the outro. Pump up the headphones and take a close listen. Al says something like, "Put your body, put your hat, put your keys, put your shoes by the bed and...." Al starts hesitating like he doesn't know what else to say and the record fades out. Pretty much speaks for itself. We know where that was heading, don't we? I'm not going to sit here and argue about whether or not these songs are better than "Simply Beautiful" or "The Love Sermon" or "I Didn't Know" or "For The Good Times." To me, that's not even the point. The point is, this is music I've been happy to listen to for the last couple of weeks and I have a pretty good feeling that I'll be still happy to listen to for a good long while to come. All of that said, I won't be getting rid of "The Love Sermon" any time soon. —Mtume ya Salaam  

This entry was posted on Monday, August 11th, 2008 at 2:34 am and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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