Friday, January 16, 2004

Terrell's Tuneup: Unstoppable Soul

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Jan. 16, 2004

Is there some kind of “soul revival” gurgling underground. There were actually two good old-school soul albums released in 2003 by venerated masters of the genre -- Rediscovered by Howard Tate and I Can’t Stop by Al Green.

Green was the last great star of pure Southern soul music. His mid ‘70s glory years came at a time when soul music of the ‘60s was evolving into the more lush Philadelphia Sound of Gamble and Huff, the harder edge of funk and the emotionally bankrupt but commercially explosive idiocy that was disco.

Green arose several years after the Greatest Generation of soulsters -- two decades or more after pioneers like Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. And he was different from Most of the giants of the genre. He didn’t have the raw urgency of Otis, the wickedness of Pickett, the craziness of James Brown, the world weary wisdom of Curtis Mayfield or the suaveness of Marvin Gaye.

But there’s no doubt that Green belongs in this distinguished. His records were among the best stuff on the radio back in the post-Beatles/pre-punk lost years of the early and mid ‘70s. There was a sweetness and sincerity -- as well as sexiness -- in Green’s tenor -- not to mention unforgettable melodies and simple hook-laden arrangements.

Like a Black Roy Orbison, (whose “O Pretty Woman” he convincingly covered) Al Green sang for the lonely. Songs like “Tired of Being Alone” and “Let’s Stay Together” were pleas so full of both hope and despair you didn’t know how anyone could ignore them.

Green’s career in popular music ended about the time that America’s airwaves were in the deepest throes of the disco scare

It’s been nearly a quarter century since Al Green recorded secular music. Like a Sam Cooke in reverse, Green went from pop to gospel.

And no that wasn’t prompted by that tragic and bizarre 1974 night when a former girlfriend broke into his house, poured boiling grits on Green (who was in the bathtub at the time) then shot and killed herself.

Green’s decision to quit secular music came five years later, after he fell off the stage at a Cincinnati concert.

Since then Green has devoted his life and his art to the Lord for almost all this time. Folks who have attended Green’s church in Memphis, Tenn. say that services there are higher energy than just about any rock ‘n’ roll show you can name.

Until late last year, there’s only been one new secular album, the obscure Love is Reality (which escaped mass attention and admittedly flew under my own radar.)

But I Can’t Stop is the first secular Al Green album in more than 25 years produced by Willie Mitchell, the man responsible for all the classic Green records and co-writing some of Green‘s greatest songs. (Mitchell did produce a Green gospel records in 1985)

On my first couple of listens have to admit I was somewhat disappointed in I Can’t Stop. It sounded good. Green’s voice hasn’t suffered in the passing of time and Mitchell still is a master at good clean arrangements. But none of the songs seemed to come anywhere close to Green’s greatest hits.

However, the more I listen to it, the more this new record rings true. True, there’s no “Let’s Stay Together” here, but I could listen to I Can’t Stop all day.

There’s the strutting beat of “Play to Win,” with Green moaning and squealing as a horn section recreates the horny glory of the Stax/Volt years. There’s a sweet ballad called “Rainin’ in My Heart” whose secret star is the swirling organ of Robert Clayborne. There’s a six-minute blues song Robert Cray probably wishes he had written called “My Problem is You,”

The album ends with a tune called “Too Many.” It’s an upbeat track that sounds influenced by New Orleans maestro Allen Toussaint. But the happy “Life is a Carnival” melody is deceptive. Here Green sings the most troubled lyrics on the album:

“Too many things in my head/Too many ghosts in my bed … I got too many things to do/I got too many things that ain’t true/I got too many and that’s wrong for you.”

For the sake of the Rev. Al Green’s church, I wouldn’t want to encourage him to turn his back on the world of the gospel. But I do hope Green makes more journeys into the secular.

Also recommended:

*Mississippi to Mali by Corey Harris.
This album should be a companion piece to Feel Like Going Home, Martin Scorsese’s contribution to his recent PBS documentary series The Blues.

Harris basically was the center of that film. Scorsese showed Harris talking with old Mississippi bluesmen, including the master of fife-and-drum music Otha Turner. It also showed Harris traveling to Africa, talking to and jamming with African musicians such as Ali Farka Toure of Mali.

Toure is on this album. And on Turner would have been, but he died shortly before the scheduled recording session.

The most satisfying songs here probably are the fife-and-drum songs like “Station Blues” and “Back Atcha,” which Harris recorded with Turner’s granddaughter Shardee Thomas.

My favorite cuts with Toure are the covers of Skip James Songs “Special Rider Blues” and “Cypress Grove”) where the African plays a najarka (one-string violin). Also haunting is the slow, John Lee Hooker-like “Rokie,” which features a repeated blues guitar riff and clacking percussion by Souleyman Kane.

However some of the lengthier Toure cuts like the 6-minute “Tamala,” start to drag.

While Harris’ roots journey here is interesting, his own experiments in fusing blues and African (and other) sounds -- his last album Downhome Sophisticate, for instance -- is more rewarding.

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