Al Green goes back to the basics

Today's multiplatinum pop artists too easily bend their signature sounds into formulaic molds. They all seem to carry some variation on the stuttery Timbaland beat or T-Pain's Auto-Tuned microphone; current conventions for chasing success have been taken to an absurdist extreme worthy of Saturday Night Live–style parody.

It isn't just the new stars who do it, either. Snoop and R. Kelly recently failed to help album sales for the Gap Band's Charlie Wilson, whose vocals are stronger than both guests combined. Wilson would have done best to stick to his classic style. Meanwhile, Ne-Yo's sappy R&B hooks didn't exactly leave New Kids on the Block splashing in the fountain of youth on their recent disc.

So God bless the Reverend Al Green for getting it right against so many examples of how it's done wrong. He isn't twisting his talents into shapes dictated by chart trends or overextending his range to embrace the kids with, say, drum 'n' bass or reggaetón. The longtime pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis has touched millions with his secular and religious songs: His most recent album, Lay It Down, focuses on the former, and the result is current without being captive to modern times.

Lay It Down's artistic balance owes partial credit to its production team. A few years back, rumor had it that Green intended to make an album with Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots. Despite the iconic Afro'd drummer's consummate coolness, it wasn't a given that the pairing would offer something befitting Green's legacy, though Thompson and producing partner James Poyser have a respectable track record with next-gen soul stars like Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and D'Angelo. The impressive results with Lay It Down came in part because Thompson and Poyser set out to make a sequel of sorts to 1978's The Belle Album, Green's last secular effort for several years, and one that played with the rising urgency of his spirituality.

The producers imposed no framework on Green except to find the right players (including jazz guitarist Chalmers "Spanky" Alford) to make the record come alive. Most of the songs were recorded the old-fashioned way in real time, as on The Belle Album, rather than being spliced together and processed digitally. The result feels like the rightful successor to Belle. The new songs are warm and filled with delightful human imperfection as Green's voice once again interplays with piano, guitar, and drums.

Lay It Down does make a couple of concessions to our new millennium with the inclusion of three stars under age 30, but the contributions flow easily with the rest of the album. Southern crooner Anthony Hamilton adds robust harmonies on "You've Got the Love I Need," while Kanye West protégé John Legend edges adult-contemporary smoothness into "Stay with Me (by the Sea)." British singer-songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae erases the age divide when she duets with Green on "Take Your Time," a song about the beauty of a slow courtship.

Throughout Lay It Down, Green's favorite themes of love and happiness still set the tone, sounding as endearing as they did in the '70s. Rather than trying new tricks, it's best to let an icon's signature style remain this unblemished — especially with a talent like Al Green, one performer who answers to a higher authority.

 
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