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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Al Green: I Can't Stop


1) I Can't Stop; 2) Play To Win; 3) Rainin' In My Heart; 4) I've Been Waitin' On You; 5) You; 6) Not Tonight; 7) Million To One; 8) My Problem Is You; 9) I'd Still Choose You; 10) I've Been Thinkin' 'Bout You; 11) I'd Write A Letter; 12) Too Many.

From 1980's The Lord Will Find A Way and up to 1987's Soul Survivor, the Reverend was unwaverend: with a handful of minor "ambiguous" exceptions, everything that he wrote, covered, and recorded served the sole purpose of proving, over and over again, that He could always count on the Reverend in case of need. Some time in the late Eighties, though, either the Reverend felt that he'd propped up his faith with plenty of supporting beams already, or perhaps He eventually let the Reverend know that if the Reverend were to continue in the exact same way, his paeans would eventually start being regurgitated back on Earth in the form of a severe pandemic of dia­betes, proportional to the amount of Heart and Soul contained therein.

Anyway, during the late Eighties and Nineties Al Green released several uneven albums, some­what confusedly hopping between pure gospel, gospel-tinged secular numbers, and secular-tinged gospel numbers. Some of these albums are supposedly worth a short visit, but it wasn't until the turn of the millennium that it became possible to speak of a true "secular comeback" — after all, the Apocalypse happily passed us by, and so one could allow oneself a little relaxation.

Since relaxing is always more fun in the company of old friends, Green chose to team up once more with his old producer pal, Willie Mitchell, and within the confines of his original Eldorado: Hi Studios, where many of the old session players were still abiding. Not only that, but the inten­tion was clearly to try and replicate the old sound — screw all modern technology advances and return to the original warm vibes of Seventies' R'n'B; who cares if it sounds "retro" and "outda­ted" as long as it's Green's signature sound, the thing that he obviously does best?

Indeed, I Can't Stop sounds marvelous. No matter how much I listen to it, I still can't find a single thing that would unmistakably tie it to 2003 from a technical point of view; it seems to pick up exactly from where we were left twenty-five years back with Truth 'N Time. One could imagine that, over twenty-five years, Green could have at least aged in the throat, but the Lord has amply repaid him by protecting his vocal charm — he hasn't lost a single step off his range, still doing both his grunts and his high-pitched squeals the same way he produced them in his youth. And when you hear them strewn over funky guitars, rhythmic brass figures, swirling or­gans, and swinging live percussion, you know for sure that the old joy is back.

There's only one thing that's wrong with this idyllic picture: this album completely, totally, and inescapably sucks. Beneath the shiny facade, there is no sign whatsoever of the old amazing spi­rituality, or of the composing genius that Al Green used to be. Each and every one of the twelve songs on this album are utterly lifeless, as if they were contributed by outside hacks — all the more horrible it is to realize that all of them are credited to Green and Mitchell. Obviously, I have no "objective proof"; I can only speak for myself, stating that, where Green's classic material from 1971 to 1977 made me cry, laugh, and feel like a sentient human being, I Can't Stop has not connected me with Al Green neither on the in-, nor on the outside.

I cannot put my finger on it; it's one of those most-hard-to-explain cases where everything should work but somehow nothing does. It's certainly not the "sterileness" of the production — perfect studio gloss has always been a sine qua non of Green's life. It's not a matter of "detached singing": I cannot accuse Green of not caring for this material, as he fully empties his bag of vocal modula­tions and tricks onto the listener. It's not even a matter of "lack of hooks": technically, there are some 'attention-demanding' brass riffs and catchy choruses, meaning that the songs were written, not improvised on the spot. So what is it?

Unfortunately, it seems to be a severe case of gospelitis. After two decades of squeezing himself into the rigid hymn format, of bravely (but, in the long run, needlessly) sacrificing his indivi­du­ality for the Greater Glory, Green is no longer able — or, to put it in more optimistic terms, for the moment unable — to bring back that most important component: emotional intelligence. These are all simplistic, superficial love numbers, some in dance format, some in ballad shape, but none of them displaying even a tenth part of the subtlety and depth of old. They're all inter­changeable and flat; the only feel they give out is that of gladness and satisfaction, but you can't even tell where the gladness and satisfaction are coming from, much less discern a single trace of something more complex behind them.

There are some tiny drops of potential, like on the sly, foxy-sounding 'I've Been Thinkin' 'Bout You', or on the anthemic title track, but even these numbers sound like their primary purpose was to reintroduce the old sound — at all costs — rather than say something important. It all prompts me to end this review with some spiteful remark (such as "see what years of singing gospel music does to good people"), but it's scientifically incorrect to make broad generalizations even on such a tempting subject as dedicated Christians, so, instead, I'll just give this a straight ahead thumbs down from the heart, reiterating, however, that the brain was at least pleased to see the man able to recreate the basics of his classic sound with such meticulousness — even if to no avail.

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