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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Al Green: The Belle Album


1) Belle; 2) Loving You; 3) Feels Like Summer; 4) Georgia Boy; 5) I Feel Good; 6) All 'N' All; 7) Chariots Of Fire; 8) Dream.

In 1977, Al was but two years away from a full-fledged immersion into radical gospel; it's all the more amazing that the same year saw such a major oddity in his catalog as The Belle Album. He may have realized himself that the last three records, consistent as they were, were also pretty much interchangeable, and opted for a change of direction. Long-time pal and producer Willie Mitchell was cordially given the sack; new musicians were brought in the studio; Al wrote pretty much all of the material himself, and he even played his own guitar on most of the tracks. The results could have been terrible; instead, they are brilliant.

What's so fascinating about The Belle Album is that it goes in two opposite directions at the same time. No other Al Green record makes so well-pronounced a distinction between Dance and Dream; no two Al Green songs are more different from each other than 'I Feel Good', symboli­zing the Dance and 'Dream', symbolizing itself. And yet the two extremes are one in that both serve the same purpose — celebrating the beauty of Her and the goodness of Him in one package, the two inseparable from each other.

For the Dance, Al finally makes the crossing into disco (blessed are the polyester wearers, so the Lord says). But if all disco were like this, we could still be hailing disco as the best musical break­­through since the days of Handel. 'I Feel Good' — an original, nothing to do with the James Brown hit — boogies along to a clever web of acoustic rhythm, funky clavinet patterns, brass bursts, and even a little modernistic electronic percussion; it is disco, technically, but it feels like maniacal funk all the way, even despite lacking fiery funky guitar solos. 'Georgia Boy', also built around a disco bassline, is, however, its direct opposite: it's hushed and stripped down, with just a little acoustic backing track and some handclaps (and some delicate chiming in the background) strapped on top. The result is fairly weird, as if we were witnessing an old folk-blues performer adjusting to the modern times, but it's quite unique in a way.

Those who are more interested in the "serious" aspects of soul music, though, will certainly want to pay more attention to the Dream side of the story. That one is best illustrated by 'Belle' and 'Dream'. The former is a gorgeous ballad; the story is old — once again, Green is assuring his girl that he has little choice but to share her with the Lord, because 'I know you're all of these things, girl, but He's such a brighter joy' (yes, I know that's exactly the way I'd always talk to my wife were I a truly devoted believer) — but the way of delivery is new, with Green's acoustic and the shrill, but pleasant synthesizer gelling together in a manner that seriously raises the angelic feel of it all.

Yes, even though synthesized strings mostly replace real ones on this album, it never feels wrong because they're pushed a bit into the background to provide subtle atmosphere, while the loud part is mostly Al's acoustic rhythm. This is even more pronounced on 'Dream'; the latter formally belongs to the pile of Green's seven-minute mood-setters, but it's better than most — it is really set in the manner of a "musical lullaby", slowly rocking back and forth, rising and falling, soaring and swooping; if you play it loud, it'll be a never-ending series of mini-climactic moments, but you're probably supposed to play it soft, so that it gets a chance to really lull you — I've always felt that "music that puts you to sleep" is not necessarily a bad thing, and 'Dream' will put you to sleep in one of the best ways possible, just as 'I Feel Good' will put you up on your feet even if you were among the original jury that yielded the guilty as charged verdict against disco.

Set so near the end of his career, so unconspicuously nested among a string of "merely good" records, and so near to the usually (but not in this case) precarious influence of the disco spirits, The Belle Album rarely gets the same attention or respect as the early 1970s records that defined Green's career, but to me it is obvious that this is little more than the result of unfortunate circum­stances, and my own respect and love for the record prompt me to give it as solid a thumbs up as I'd give Call Me or I'm Still In Love With You, and here's hoping the album will eventually return to print and gain as much critical and fan appraisal as the older records.

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