- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

Al Green

I Can’t Stop

Blue Note Records

Al Green, confirming the title he chose for this marvelous comeback album, can’t stop. He can’t stop returning, that is, to what made him famous: songs about love and heartbreak set to a so-smooth-it-aches cocktail of Philly and Memphis soul.

Thank God.

Since leaving the rock-star spotlight, with its earthly temptations and daily drug highs, for clean living and Christian ministry in the mid-‘70s, Mr. Green has surfaced intermittently from the gospel world; his last nonreligious album was 1992’s “Love Is Reality.”

“I Can’t Stop” is special not only for its worldliness, though; it’s a veritable re-enactment of his best albums, right down to the producer-arranger, the recording space and some of the backup musicians.

Willie Mitchell, who discovered Mr. Green and was the creative force behind the singer’s titanically great soul albums such as “Gets Next to You,” “Let’s Stay Together” and “I’m Still in Love With You,” is back in the helmer’s seat.

The magic-in-the-air vibe of Memphis, Tenn.’s Royal Studios, the home base of the legendary Hi Records soul stable, was harnessed again for the “Stop” sessions, which started in January with Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Green plunking together at the piano.

Also turning out from the Class of ‘72 are singers Donna Rhodes, Charlie Chalmers and Sandra Rhodes; guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges; bassist Leroy Hodges; and two original members of the Royal Horns, trombonist Jack Hale and tenor saxophonist Andrew Love.

“Stop,” out today, is special for another reason: It’s yet another pop outreach from the decreasingly stodgy jazz label Blue Note Records, which recently put out Van Morrison’s latest and introduced Norah Jones last year.

The album works in every way it was designed to: as a retro artifact (check out the vintage-looking cover art, a Blue Note speciality); as a celebration of the kind of soul music not often produced today; and, most important, as a vehicle for the Voice.

Pushing 60, Mr. Green has lost only a tad of the glint on his one-of-a-kind set of pipes. One can hear a hint of tattered grit in the voice that launched a thousand hugs, but otherwise, it sounds amazingly fresh and vital.

The silky falsetto, the guttural grunts, the gospelly howls — they’re all here, and they sound just as catchy and uplifting as they did 30 years ago.

On the title track, “I’ve Been Waitin’ on You,” “I’d Still Choose You,” “I’ve Been Thinkin’ Bout You” and “You” — yes, I noticed a pattern, too — Mr. Green sings with such celebratory precision that the tracks crackle with tight electricity.

“Stop” is neither Saturday night nor Sunday morning. It’s more like Sunday night, a reflective end to an ecstatic weekend with loving company but with Monday’s trouble lurking around the corner.

Next to foot-stompers such as “Play to Win” and “Too Many” are mournful heart-cries such as “My Problem Is You” (rounding out the “You” suite) and “Not Tonight,” on which he pleads with a lover not to get on that proverbial relationship-ending train ride.

On “Rainin’ in My Heart,” it sounds as if the train left with her on it: “Standing on the edge of the world / I’m looking for you, baby / I keep looking at the sun / but it’s rainin’ in my heart.”

Each track either was written solely by Mr. Green or co-written with Mr. Mitchell, and there’s not a clever turn of phrase to be found in the entire set.

But lyrics aren’t the point of Al Green’s music. “Stop” is 12 love letters from a guy born to sing, and it doesn’t matter a whit to whom he’s singing: whether it’s the Lord or “baby” or “you.”

Put simply, Al Green can make the secular sound holy.

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