|Al Green - Lay It Down|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Matt Fink|
|Tuesday, 03 February 2009|
Produced by the Roots’ ?uestlove and James Poyser, Green’s third album in the new century succeeds mostly by returning to the sound he established on his classic albums in the 1970s. Joined by reverb-drenched guitars, light strings, and pulsing horns, Green’s richly expressive baritone is wrapped in a perfectly soulful tableau, here paired with a set of songs that allow him to fully inhabit the mystery inherent in his wounded and desperate performances. No song better exemplifies those qualities than the dynamic title track, opening the album with a spine-tingling major to minor chord sway, with backing vocalist Anthony Hamilton multi-tracking his voice into an army of oohs and aahs that deepen the ethereal atmosphere created by the swooning strings and weeping horns. Proving what an amazing instrument his voice is, Green assumes center stage, commanding the arrangement as he transitions from sensual growl to falsetto croon. As album openers go, it’s a perfect pacesetter, loaded with the pleading and vulnerability that define the genre and arguably one of the greatest soul songs of the past 30 years. Unsurprisingly, what follows struggles to live up to that high standard.
As Green tends to do ballads better than grooves, he seems a bit miscast among the celebratory horns and crackling beats of “Just for Me” and the organ-driven “What More Do You Want from Me.” Taking a similar detour, the funky chicken scratch guitars and kick drum and hi-hat interplay in “You’ve Got the Love I Need” seems to pull Green away from his strengths as a performer, pushing him to be tough and aggressive when he thrives most when he’s wounded and distracted. Luckily, there are some of those moments here, too, as the darkly gospel-tinged “Too Much” captures Green in the insecure throes of overwhelming love and the simmering organ and rising and falling backing vocals of “All I Need” present him as his most obsessively distracted.
In an apparent attempt to give Green more currency with today’s R&B fans, John Legend is brought in to duet on “Stay With Me (By the Sea),” but the result is a strangely unconvincing bit of soft rock blandness, as the duo seems strangely positioned among the electric piano and flitting guitar lines that form the arrangement. Similarly, the pairing with British soul-pop diva Corinne Bailey Rae produces a pleasant throwaway ballad, with both vocalists sounding tentative and fearful of overpowering the other. Such moments ultimately make up the difference between a great album and a merely good one.
More Sam Cooke than Otis Redding, much of the album is just too light-hearted to truly canonize the album among Green’s best work, but Lay It Down is undeniably a return to form for someone who has spent the last 30 years waiting to make an album like this. Most impressively, the vintage touches added by the production team create a release that could have easily been slipped into his early 70s heyday as a lost album and no one would have noticed. That said, it doesn’t necessarily add anything to Green’s catalog that wasn’t there before, but the album’s high points arguably rank with the best in his illustrious career. All in all, it’s not a perfect release but it’s on point more often than not, once again proving that old soul singers are never far away from another renaissance.
As much as Green brilliantly assumes the center of the album, the production often threatens to steal the show, and better equipment will be needed to capture this album in all its reverb-drenched beauty. Though Green’s range as a vocalist is perfectly captured, the subtle production touches – strings, horns, guitar hooks – might be lost in the mix, as everything is massaged into a wall of gorgeously dewy textures that often drown out each other. That said, a good stereo should provide the separation needed to really make this album sing, and when heard as intended, few albums sound better.