Al Green Reviews
Al Green

Let me start off by making this claim: Al Green is the greatest singer alive today. His vocal abilities are almost superhuman. I've got a nice pair of vocal chords myself (not to boast; after all, a good voice is only a genetic accident) but every time I listen to Green's records I'm severely humbled. It helps that those records are indeed great, too - his voice is only one ingredient; Green is also a terrific songwriter, and the sound he and producer Willie Mitchell developed at Hi Records is one of the most influential archetypes of soul. The sound Green and the Hi Rhythm section achieve possesses the same complementary tensions of his voice: it's soft but solid, muscular but fluid, insistent but languid, smooth and lush but buttered in hot grits (sorry, couldn't resist the pun). And unlike a lot of R & B acts, Green made consistently great albums as well as singles -- almost any of his '70s albums are essential for any R & B fan, and more than that, a surefire pick for any rock fan, period. Unfortunately, the shelf life of most soul music is very short, even for superstars - unlike classic rock, for some reason classic soul isn't preserved with the respect it deserves. It's a shame that in his own home state you won't find a radio station that plays his music - R & B stations think anything recorded more than three years ago is ancient history.

Al Green was born and raised in Forrest City, AR, where he formed a gospel group in his teens that toured the South. His family moved to Grand Rapids, MI for a short time, and Green began performing with secular groups (legend has it his father kicked him out of his gospel group for listening to Jackie Wilson). One night when performing on the road, Green was discovered by Willie Mitchell, who offered Green a recording contract for Hi Records. Green relocated to Memphis and beginning in 1970 embarked on a highly successful career that catapulted him to the first rank of '70s R & B stars. Tragically, in 1974 a girlfriend of Green's poured hot grits on him when he was bathing and then proceeded to shoot herself. Green took this suicide as a message from the Lord; for several years he continued to make secular albums for Hi Records, but by the end of the decade he had renounced his secular stardom and became an ordained minister. Green has continued to release many albums, but all consist of gospel music. For his day job he preaches every Sunday at a non-denominational church in West Memphis, AR.

Of Green's conversion, I will say this: it came as no surprise, nor should it have. From the very beginning, Green mixed explicit religious metaphors and imagery with traditional love plaints on his secular albums, and a deep, heartfelt spirituality infuses all of his work. Of course, there's also a deep, heartfelt sensuality informing all of his work, also, and (seeming) contradictions like that are where things gets interesting.

I've found one site devoted to Green, Al Green Is Love; I wish it had more info, but it's still very well done, with soundclips and links to Al Green's church.

P.S. A recent survey of college students voted Al Green as the best music to make out to, by a sweeping margin: 53%, with Barry White (16%) and Sarah McLachlan (14%) his closest competitors. Forget Prince, he's too silly and too unsubtle - Al Green has made the sexiest records I've ever heard. Tired of being alone? Need some of that old time lovin'? Al Green is the man!

Green Is Blues (1970)

His first album.

Gets Next To You ****

Al Green's breakthrough album hastily established him as the premier Southern soul man of the '70s, the true heir to Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, and in some ways surpassing his models -- not in the least by delivering consistently great song-for-song albums. He's certainly much more talented and likable than the overrated Marvin Gaye, another soul artist who felt conflicted over the tensions between sex and spirituality. Though not as amazing as the next three albums, Get Nexts To You ranks only a slight cut below - Green's persona and musical style are already fully developed, and he's full of confidence and charisma. The thick organ-&-horns post-Stax Hi Records studio band play rougher and greasier usual, which means that Green isn't as overreliant on slow love ballads as he sometimes would be on the later albums. The five covers are all inspired reworkings - Green rarely takes the easy way out with others' songs, but more often than not turns them inside out, as he does on the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next To You," that blows the original (solid in itself) away. That's quite a feat, and his version of "Are You Lonely For Me, Baby?" more than does Otis Redding proud; and speaking of Otis, Green's "Light My Fire," is almost as an illuminating R & B cover of a white rock standard as Redding's "Satisfaction." "Driving Wheel," (almost the same song as Green's original "I'm a Ram") is a minor R & B obscurity, but the gospel classic, "God is Standing By," is nothing short of a revelation, and ranks among Green's most stirring religious songs. As for the five originals, Green's songwriting hasn't flowered yet (it would blossom on the very next album), except for the stunning "Tired of Being Alone," -- Green's vocal gymnastics are as technically thrilling as any instrumental solo, particularly the falsetto bridge.

Let's Stay Together (1972) ****

This album cemented Green's success as a superstar, and it was deserved. The title track I'm sure you know from its recent revival in Pulp Fiction, and while it's the peak of the album, the rest of the songs run the gamut from the good to the great, with one exception: the tedious 6-minute cover of the Bee Gee's "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart". It's telling that the only cover on the album is only weak cut; while at points Green seems a bit tentative compared to the next two albums, he easily establishes himself as a major songwriter. "So You're Leaving," was the other hit, and it employs the quirky Green gambit of mixing the religious with the romantic: he implores his woman to not listen to her friends trying to tell her to go, that "if they lie on Jesus, they'll lie on you and me". "Old Time Lovin'" is basically a wrinkle on the gospel standard, "Old Time Religion" secularized. At a time when free love was the rage, Green stood as a champion of romantic fidelity; the message of "Let's Stay Together," could hardly be different from the fatuous message of Stephen Stills' "Love the One You're With". All in all, plenty of memorable, amazing music, but it's not quite as good as the next two. Green hasn't yet achieved the assured variety that would spice his best work, and a slight monotony afflicts this album as a whole - it's all mid-tempo love songs, excepting the torturously slow ballad "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart."

I'm Still In Love With You (1972) *****

Call Me and this album run a very close race as to the greatest Al Green album, and after careful consideration, I've decided that Call Me is slightly stronger. Maybe. By my estimate, about half of these nine songs are out and out classics, as good as pop music gets: the sensous title track lays down a silky, assured groove that consolidates all of the strengths of the Hi Rhythm's by now patented sound. There are fewer moments that thrill and startle me as the point near the beginning of "Love and Happiness" where Green's acapella voice fades out and the funky, ominous organ kicks in; contrary to the title, Green makes love and happiness seem like a scary thing (which love indeed is). Likewise, Green sings the impossibly moving, lovely "What A Wonderful Thing Love Is," in the voice of a tortured wreck of man, pacing the floor at night worrying about his woman. The cover of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman," is nearly definitive, and the cover of Kris Kristoffersen's "For the Good Times" underscores the links between soul and country that I've suspected were there (and it definitely beats the original, 'cause Kristoffersen isn't singing it. Everything I said about Green's voice, Kristoffersen's is the opposite). The uptempo "Look What You Done For Me," is another favorite, and yet another major hit that has been seemingly erased from the public consciousness. The only part that drags is the painfully slow "Simply Beautiful," but in its defense, it does (almost) live up to its title.

Call Me (1973) *****

Most people consider this album Green's peak, and some consider it the peak of '70s R & B. And they're right. A simply amazing album, it contained no less than three top ten hits - the title track, "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)", and the #1 "You Ought To Be With Me." If some of Green's earlier albums seemed a bit lacking in variety, this one is paced smartly enough so that every cut sounds different from the one preceding it: it flows from the sweet, languid falsetto "Have You Been Making Out Okay?" to the horn-punctuating call-to-arms, "Stand Up". There isn't a wasted cut on this album, either; I even dig the gospel "Jesus Is Waiting," that closes the record. "You Ought To Be With Me," is Green at his poppiest and catchiest, and it's no surprise at all it was a huge smash on the pop charts; "Call Me," is cut from a similar cloth, only slightly darker in tone. "Here I Am," announces itself leading off side two as a near-perfect slice of greasy Southern funk. And lo and behold, look here - not one, but two country covers: Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome (I Could Cry)" and Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away," that more than do those two legends proud - quite an accomplishment. Essential listening by any rational yardstick.

Livin' For You (1973) ****

The title track and "Let's Get Married" were both Top 10 hits this time round, and deservedly so; they're also easily the best two songs on this album, as Green begins to slide artistically. He's coasting on the power of his voice and the luxuriant-but-muscular bath of the Hi Records studio band -- "Free At Last," sounds half-written, as it simply consists of Green's fervored gospel variations on the lyric, "Thank God almighty, I'm free at last." However, Green can coast where most mortals strive to reach, and this is yet another very welcome addition to his string of classic '70s albums. The sound that Green and Mitchell develop for this release is more spacious and reliant on strings than previous albums; there's hardly any hard funk, as Green and the amazingly underrated Hi Records studio band stretch out the grooves in relaxed, sensous manner. The final track, "Beware," is perhaps the most effective use of this spacious approach; one hardly notices that it's eight minutes long. And the cover of "Unchained Melody," is just the right cover, since that's the type of music Green and the band are aiming for - slow, atmospheric majesty. Due to Green's voice and the band's versitality, it works on nearly every track, though I do wish the songwriting were as consistently solid as the sound - if only all the songs reached the heights of the title track, a love-sick moan in Green's patented mode, which I played at least five times over the first time I heard it.

Explores Your Mind (1974) ****

I know, the ratings on this page must get boring, but trust me - the man is nothing but not consistent (hey, I just used a double negative, and you know what that equals - a positive!). Curiously, the hit was not Green's best-known (and possibly best) song, "Take Me To The River," but the much lighter-weight "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)". "Sha-La-La," isn't as shallow as the title suggests, but it is the slightest single Green ever scored with - not that it's a bad song (Paul McCartney liked it enough to borrow half its melody and arrangement for his sappy "Silly Love Songs"). You probably know "Take Me To The River," via the Talking Heads cover (who do Green proud, despite my reservations about the Heads), but the original, as you'd expect, is the definitive version: Green's confusions over sex and spirituality flow together into one Mississippi River-sized metaphor, as he loses himself in fluids both holy and hormonal. There's not another song here as classic as "Take Me To The River,"; in fact, many of the songs sound slight compared to the writing on the previous four or five albums. Fortunately the tempos are upbeat, a pleasant return to direct, short songs after the slow, string-laden ballads of Livin' For You - but jaunty uptempo numbers aren't Green's reason for existence, good as all of these are (and there really isn't a bad song on this disc); he really bowls you over with his stunning lovesick slow ones. His original "School Days" I'll take over Ray Davies' but not Chuck Berry's; his ode to nighttown Memphis life, "City," has the naive excitement that only a country boy from a place like small-town Arkansas could feel for urban centers; when he says that his baby loves a "One Nite Stand", this champion of romantic fidelity is talking about a band gig, not a sexual encounter. "Take Me To The River," is the only true classic, and the album overall is minor Green, but all of the songs are good anyway, and there's nothing fans of him will miss -- it's not essential, but Green's formula makes for some very enjoyable listening.

Al Green Is Love (1975)

Like the title says, the two hits were "L-O-V-E (Love)" and "Love Ritual."

Full of Fire (1976)

I believe the title track was a hit, but it's rather lackluster, and his sales began declining around this time, in part due to changing fashion in black pop (i.e. disco).

Have a Good Time (1976)

The first Al Green album since 1970 with no hits.

The Belle Album (1977) ****1/2

After muddling about with declining sales and lack of musical focus (so I've heard), Green took some steps to change the direction of his career. He recorded his first album without Willie Mitchell, and subsequently the sound broke out of the mold of Green's patented soft soul formula. At the same time, the ballads are dreamier and more ethereal (some might say aimless), and the funkier uptempo numbers hit a lot harder - the extended jam, "I Feel Good" (an original, not the James Brown song) is more than worthy of P-Funk or any concurrent disco group. Green plays acoustic guitar on several cuts, which apparently he wrote several of these eight songs on - there's a ruminative, folky feel to the softer ballads that suits Green's ruminative mood. You see, Green had been doing a lot of introspecting for the past few years, and what we wind up with is one of rock's genuinely great concept albums. The concept Green wrestles with is the tension between the body and the soul, between life as a secular pop star and "the call", as we put it around here, to the ministry. Green lays it out explicitly in "Belle," a gorgeous ballad that moves me inexpressibly every time I hear it: "It's you that I want, but him that I need." "Him" is God, about whom most of the songs on this album are concerned with; even when Green's not mentioning God, songs like "Feels Like Summer," still feel his presence. All in all, an extremely pleasant, relaxing album for sitting on the front porch and just contemplating; certain passages are among the most moving in all of popular music. A critic for Rolling Stone has said that this album will melt the heart of even the most die-hard atheist or agnostic, and for once, they're exactly right - no matter what your religious or philosophical beliefs are, this is yet another amazing, essential album.

Truth & Time (1978)

His last album of secular pop. After this, he devoted himself to gospel, and has released numerous gospel albums. I'm not planning on purchasing any of those in the near future since I'm not a big fan of gospel music, so this is where my discography ends.

The Supreme Al Green (1992) *****

A stupendous, jaw-dropping compilation of 18 Al Green essentials. Though there are a few notable omissions (where's "You Ought To Be With Me"? That was a #1 hit!), there are always going to be notable omissions with almost any greatest-hits package. Beginning with "Tired of Being Alone" and ending with "Belle", this or the recently reissued Greatest Hits is the best place to start your appreciation of the '70s greatest R&B singer. I mean, if you don't have at least one Al Green album around your house, I pity the fool. Actually, I take that back - I envy you, because hopefully you'll take my recommendation and experience the joy of discovering his wonderful music for the first time. Now, let me talk about a few songs that aren't on albums I've already reviewed. "Tired of Being Alone" was a deserved smash (I even lamely tried to rip it off once by writing a sucky song called "Tired of Falling In Love", but I don't nearly possess the singing chops of Mr. Green. And neither do you, and I don't just bet you do, either - I know you don't for a fact). That song also contains some of the most impressive falsetto gymnastics in the break that I've ever come across. Paul McCartney ripped off half the melody and most of the string arrangement of "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy)" for his inferior "Silly Love Songs" - I'm surprised that nobody has pointed this out before. "Take Me To The River" contains the only use of Baptist imagery in a great song that I've heard - the Catholics get away with using their imagery all the time, so it's nice to hear some different denomination for a change. Anyway, he's a great singer whatever your religious upbringing (which is what I'm really talking about, since I consider organized religion to be a cultural force, not a particularly spiritual one. It just shapes you psychologically in certain ways if you got a dose of it in your childhood).

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