Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Al Green's Latest Caught Us By Surprise

One of the advantages of running a music blog is that we get exposed to a far wider range of artists and releases than we might otherwise see. Unfortunately, the advantage can also be a hindrance, as the sheer volume of releases allows for some stuff to slide by unnoticed. Luckily, the folks at record companies are more than happy to send out droves of end-of-year emails to try and remind you of their overlooked masterpieces.

It was one such email that alerted us to Al Green's latest record Lay It Down. The record caught our eye (aside from Green's obviously huge legacy) because it was produced by none other than The Roots' ?uestlove. For us here at HAD, The Roots have a special signifigance: When they backed Jay-Z on 2001's Unplugged, they drew us into hip-hop in a way that no other band had done before. Allowing hip-hop to escape the now-standard heavy studio production values and venture into the realm of completely live music was a move of total genius. As such, we had high hopes for the Green album: not only has Green made a self-proclaimed return to R&B, but with ?uestlove producing (which he also did for Jay-Z's record) it seemed like a solid bet that this record would deliver in a way that Green's hadn't in quite some time.

Thankfully, our suspicions were completely accurate. While the record does include some much-hyped duets with modern singers (John Legend, Corrine Bailey Rae), the thing that really makes it a fantastic record is just how vintage it sounds. The production yields not even the slightest hint of synths or drum machines, and the arrangements are laced with solid horn and string sections. In short, the record is a classic R&B record, in the best sense of the word. What's more, Green's voice is in top form, and if the years have done anything to affect his classic timbre, they've only served to make it warmer.

There are many reasons why hearing a record like this is such a treat: the realization that an R&B legend is still making it happen, and the fact that a modern hip hop artist is also a killer producer with insight into why genres need to be handled differently, to name two. But more than anything, it's great to hear an R&B album that has such a solid sense of soul and musicality. So much of the R&B material today is sickly-sweet and painfully smooth. Even much respected artists are releasing records that make us cringe a bit. They seem to lack personality and any real sense of generating a true musical groove and persona. By contrast, Lay It Down is the polar opposite: Green and ?uestlove have delivered a classic R&B album that transcends both its time and place by delivering something far more lasting: real music.

Stream: Al Green - Lay It Down