Al Green - Lay It Down (2008)

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    The legend of Al Green has continued to grow, nearly 40 years after he first hit the charts and decades since his commercial peak.  Green's early 70s Memphis-based work with producer Willie Mitchell has aged well and so has Green, who continues to boast an incredible range and vocal technique even as he enters enters his sixties.  He has consequently been deified by the newest generation of soul music singers, referred to in the same reverential tones as Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield.  But unlike the latter two artists whose legacy has grown posthumously, Green's reputation has emerged while he's still laying it out there, sounding both relevant and vital in 2008.

    So it is entirely appropriate that Green would team up with a new generation of soul music's elite, including singers John Legend, Anthony Hamilton and Corinne Bailey Rae and producers James Poyser (Erykah Badu, Common) and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson (the Roots), to work on his newest disc, Lay It Down.   Recorded in fresh surroundings in New York, the result is Green's most consistently satisfying album in three decades.

    Classic soulheads will find a lot to like on Lay It Down.  The midtempo "Just For Me" and the loping "No One Like You" are quintessential Green, his falsetto rising over an omnipresent organ underpinning, with the Dap Kings horn section punctuating every phrase. Radio will most likely focus on the album's three duets, and they're all gems.  Ballads "Take Your Time" (with Corinne Bailey Rae) and "Stay With Me (By the Sea)" with John Legend find Green playing to the strengths of his partners, giving Bailey Rae a mellow, acoustic backdrop for her soft, folky vocals and providing Legend with the kind of retro pop track that dominated his Once Again album.  But the real find is the funky Green/Anthony Hamilton duet, "You've Got The Love I Need," a brilliant Bill Withers-like cut that both artists simply rip up vocally, providing the album's finest moment.

    Special kudos go to producers Poyser and ?uestlove for creating a sound that is inspired by, but not a slave to, Green's seminal 70s work.  And the players -- especially the incredible Dap Kings horn section -- complete the package beautifully.  The infusion of the young talent shows, as the songs seemingly pop out of the speakers, giving immediacy to a wall of sound that includes no electronics or gimmickry.

    When Green re-teamed with Willie Mitchell in 2004 and 2006 for I Can't Stop and Everything's OK, his first two secular soul albums of this century, soul fans rightly celebrated a somewhat nostalgic trip with Reverend Al.  But what makes Lay It Down so special is that nostalgia does not play a role in its greatness.  A killer combination of uniformly strong material, an excellent musical backdrop and Green's usual vocal prowess make it one of the best new albums in any genre this year.  This is essential listening.

    By Chris Rizik 

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