Review by Thom Jurek
The big question that greets listeners encountering Al Green's third Blue Note album, Lay It Down, is: what happens when you put that amazing soul-drenched voice in the hands of hip-hop producers Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots and James Poyser, and add a slew of superstar guests? Answer: a killer Al Green soul album. Thompson and Poyser weren't interested in straying far from the classic sound Green and producer Willie Mitchell created at Hi Records in the 1970s, but they did want to place it in a more contemporary -- albeit analog -- setting. Green cut his previous offerings for the label -- 2003's I Can't Stop and 2005's Everything's OK -- with Mitchell, and the results were good, not great, albums because Green's sound was simply re-created nostalgically. Even though Thompson and Poyser have been very creative here with their nuanced percussive, textural, and dynamic touches, Lay It Down is more of a classic-sounding Green record than either of its predecessors. The producers are at the core of a studio band (on drums and various analog keyboards, respectively) that also includes Mighty Clouds of Joy guitarist Chalmers "Spanky" Alford (in whose memory the album is dedicated), bassist Adam Blackstone (Jill Scott), and the Dap-Kings Horns. There are some beautifully arranged strings by Larry Gold in places as well. Lay It Down is a slow-burning, solid groover of a soul record; its dynamics and textures shift subtly and purposely to keep Green's voice at the center of its sound.
The opening title track hosts one of two spots by Anthony Hamilton. Green and Hamilton are all silky and sweet on the refrain, but Green's delivery on the verses moves toward his grittier side. The strings offer a deeply emotional resonance without going over the top. Poyser's B-3 accents Blackstone's bassline and Thompson keeps time on the bass drum and hi-hat alone. Alford's guitar fills come from the well of the Delta blues. It's a deeply moving exercise in restraint as force. Hamilton also duets with Green on the funkier "You've Got the Love I Need." It's one of two overtly sensual tunes on the set, with horns moving out of the intro and into a striking transcendent verse. The bass and drum groove is infectious, the horn section punches it up, and Alford's jazzy guitar solo puts it over the top. "Take Your Time" is a duet with Corinne Bailey Rae. The melody and arrangement walk the tightrope between classic soul and late doo wop balladry. The rhythm section and horns dress the lines in a slow, low, humid groove, while Poyser's keys and Alford's fingerpicked electric wrap themselves around each verse as the strings pillow the singers' voices softly and silkily. John Legend duets with Green on "Stay with Me (By the Sea)." Its "la-la-la" vocal intro sets the pace for a swaying, tender, babymaker ballad. Thompson's backbeat creates a mellow, understated, steamy funk groove. The near cooing, seductive pleas from the singers rise to meet the bubbling bassline and horns. Star power aside (all of it welcome and worthy), Green still sounds best when he's on his own. The open-throated midtempo ballad "No One Like You," with gorgeous backing vocals by Jaguar Wright and Mercedes Martinez, and the closer, an Otis Redding-esque uptempo burner called "Standing in the Rain," are cases in point.
If there is a flaw on the set, it's that individual tracks don't assert themselves immediately. Green, Poyser, and Thompson were going for immediacy and feel: nine of the album's 11 cuts had basic tracks done in their first session. They achieved their goal and then some. The album feels of such an atmospheric piece and is so present that it initially comes off as a whole. That said, there is no better place to spend 45 minutes than in Lay It Down's dreamy, sensual, gritty, and tender sound world. Al Green's continued vitality and creativity are gifts to us all.