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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Al Green: Back Up Train


1) Back Up Train; 2) Hot Wire; 3) Stop And Check Myself; 4) Let Me Help You; 5) I'm Reachin' Out; 6) Don't Hurt Me No More; 7) Don't Leave Me; 8) I'll Be Good To You; 9) Guilty; 10) That's All It Takes (Lady); 11) Get Yourself Together; 12) What's It All About; 13) A Lover's Hideaway.

Not everyone is even aware that this record exists: it is credited to Al Greene, it came out almost three years before his "proper" debut, and it bears only a remote resemblance to the classic Al Green style. Nevertheless, it is certainly not an album to be ashamed of; in fact, in terms of consistency and general enjoyability, it is arguably more solid than the "proper debut" itself (Green Is Blues). It is simply different, more suitable to the tastes of those who dig good old classic R'n'B than those who are looking for soft silky sexy sounds to make out to.

Being utterly unoriginal, the record is best described as the sum of its influences: a little hoppin' and boppin' from James Brown, a touch of soul from Otis Redding, and plenty of white-suited spirituality from the Impressions. Oh, and Marvin Gaye? He's somewhere in here too, maybe contributing to the idea that there should be actual hooks in the songs. I wish I could claim that all these influences fall together into something completely idiosyncratic, but they don't. The only independent aspect here is Green(e)'s voice, already capable of seducing the audience — although he's sparing the highest notes for just a few spine-tingling choruses (do not miss his glorious 'I've been cheated...' on 'Don't Hurt Me No More').

Still, in most respects this is a very solid album — the songwriting is professional, the musician­ship first-rate, and the arrangements tasteful and making the best use of mid-Sixties technology; particularly impressive is 'I'll Be Good To You' which, in its limited two minutes, manages to throw in some 'Taxman'-style choppy rhythm guitar, a complex early-funk rhythm section, a brash brass opening, echoey vocal harmonies, and an almost psychedelic strings section (or is that Mellotron? In any case, someone in the studio must have been a big 'Strawberry Fields Forever' fan). This may be an extreme, but many other songs have little cool vocal or instrumental tricks as well, warranting repeated listening.

For the record, Green(e) himself is only credited for one song, 'Stop And Check Myself', which is, as you might expect, a little more personal and a little less lyrically trivial than the rest of the stuff (credited mostly to Palmer James and Curtis Rodgers, the album's producers), but hardly any more interesting from a purely musical side. That's just for the record.

Predictably, in the heart against brain struggle heart wins with a thumbs up, especially if the heart in question belongs to someone who insists good R'n'B shouldn't be just about dancing and "soul-feeding" but must be well-composed, too. The brain, meanwhile, is off looking for more groundbreaking (but, alas, frequently much less melodic) monuments to/in this genre.

Check "Back Up Train" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Back Up Train" (MP3) on Amazon

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