- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Al Green

Lay It Down

Back in the early 1970s, Al Green and his producer, Willie Mitchell, redefined soul music with a few simple ingredients - syncopated horns, Hammond organ and Mr. Green’s rich, ranging, unmistakable voice, which conveyed the heights of ecstasy and the depths of despair with equal conviction. Mr. Green’s new album, his third on the Blue Note label, taps into this signature sound without sounding dusty or retro.

As an experiment, I tried listening to 11 tracks on “Lay It Down” in a random shuffle with songs from classic Al Green albums such as “Call Me,” “I’m Still in Love With You” and “Let’s Stay Together.” I could discern the passage of the intervening 35-odd years between Mr. Green’s heyday and now only in very small ways. Mr. Green, 62, is still in fine fettle as a singer.

His falsetto is still working, and it’s still an essential ingredient of his songs, but he uses it more sparingly. The horn arrangements on “Lay It Down,” provided by the Dap-Kings Horns, are a little less gaudy and more restrained and dignified than some of the wet, grinding Stax-style riffs scored by Mr. Mitchell.

Ironically, this classic groove was achieved with hip-hop producers James Poyser and Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson at the dials. Mr. Mitchell produced Mr. Green’s first two comeback efforts for Blue Note, but he’s found only in spirit on “Lay It Down.”

Mr. Green does show his age - or, more accurately, his experience - on the gospel-tinged track “What More Do You Want From Me?” He does not pose the title’s request in exasperation, but rather in earnest, singing, “What more do you want from my heart/After all you’ve done for me, I love you, yesiree.”

The arrangement is purposefully spare to give Mr. Green’s voice room to soar, which it does from the outset. A crisp snare-drum beat plays insistently behind the vocal line. A Hammond organ flourish attends each line of the chorus, while a soft, lingering horn part accompanies each verse.

There are some notable guest spots here.

Neo-soul star John Legend sings with Mr. Green on the lush, sultry, “Stay With Me.” Mr. Legend brings his youthful voice to the “la-la-la” intro, which recalls the opening to Mr. Green’s hit “Let’s Stay Together.” Mr. Green duets with Anthony Hamilton on the title track and on “You’ve Got the Love I Need.”

He is joined by Corinne Bailey Rae on “Take Your Time,” a track that looks back longingly to how romance was conducted in the age before instantaneous communications.

Miss Rae sings, “Do you remember when we used to take our time/You’d write me a letter baby/And I’d wait for you all night.” The songs here are passionately rendered; they describe an idealized, lasting love in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in the pulpit of the Full Gospel Tabernacle, where Mr. Green is pastor.

There’s nothing game-changing about the songs on “Lay It Down,” but they will introduce Mr. Green’s talent - and his amazing back catalog - to a new generation of listeners.