Al Green: I Can’t Stop
Label: Blue Note
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- To serious students of vintage soul music, the components behind Al Green’s string of 1970s hits are as legendary as Green’s sublime vocal delivery, and every bit as vital to his success. Chemistry was clearly on the side of the Michigan-born singer when he made his alliance with producer Willie Mitchell, who was then president of Memphis-based Hi Records. As Green’s co-writer and musical overseer, Mitchell had at his command a cache of the city’s most able players and background singers; additionally, his brother James wrote tasteful horn arrangements. With this package deal in place, the team churned out such enduring soul standards as "Let’s Stay Together" and "Tired Of Being Alone," on which Green’s near-otherworldly voice floated atop Mitchell’s cement-solid backings. This unbeatable formula kept the hits coming until Green’s recommitment to his faith led him to become a practicing reverend; even then, they made great records but gradually drifted away from the pop spotlight.
The Rev. Green, who appears to have no reluctance about walking on both sides of the pop/gospel line, reappears from time to time as a secular performer. He’s done it again on I Can’t Stop, a disc especially noteworthy for its reunion of Green with Willie Mitchell and many of the principals from his classic period. The songs, many of which are Green/Mitchell collaborations, do not show the pair of old cronies in reflective moods; rather, they contain the straightforward romantic themes typical of Green’s earlier work. Because the Reverend is so adept at switching between stage, studio and pulpit, faith-related issues remain unexplored, saved for their implicit presence in several tracks dealing with committed, mature relationships. The classic sound of Green circa 1973 is most closely recaptured in "Million To One," in which the singer declares "each and every night for the rest of my life/ I’ll be steadfast, unmovable, unshakable." Similarly effective is "I’d Still Choose You," a driving shuffle with a relentless bass line in which Green woos a longtime partner: "I still trust you, I grow with you/ Forever and ever / I’ll hold you until eternity whatever." Even when love navigates troubled waters, as it does in "Rainin’ In My Heart," Green keeps spouting sugar, insisting "my love for you is an eternal one."
Perhaps the strangest spin on relational integrity appears in the closing cut, "Too Many," a playful heel-kicker featuring rollicking piano and clarinet. In the lyric, a man confesses distractions and "too many ghosts" in his past, concluding "I got too many, and that’s no good for you." What is most curious is the track’s exuberance, suggesting that the honesty here doesn’t equal regret. Though variations include the bluesy, Ray Charles-esque "My Problem Is You" and the emotionally ambivalent "I’ve Been Waitin’ On You," Green never veers from romantic territory. Because his tendency to employ trite phrases and paint overly idealized pictures can become wearying, this collection is best appreciated for its rich and rhythmically invigorating sound. Green’s voice, while still fully capable of producing a soaring falsetto, has aged into a slightly grittier instrument reminiscent at times of B.B. King. The toothy grin in his voice is perhaps more prominent than it was 30 years ago, when Green’s drive to succeed lent his singing a slow burning, Otis Redding-like quality. Here, he sounds satisfied to be revisiting former glories and delighted to have the opportunity. Of course, it isn’t possible to return to the joy of creative discovery and initial breakthrough. However, the infectious pleasure of reunion and rediscovery come across clearly on I Can’t Stop.
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Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.