Lay It Down
Blue Note Records, 2008
REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/22/2008
In the late ‘70s, as punk music was starting make inroads, many of the great artists of the time were ridiculed as being horrendously out-of-date and out of touch with the music scene. If memory serves, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and others had the misfortunes of being labeled as “dinosaurs.”
At the time, it is somewhat easy to understand that kind of mentality. The punk genre was a rebellion against, well, practically everything. In the end, it was consumed by its own hatred and morphed into something else altogether (I do not intend to slight punk too terribly; it has made valuable contributions.) I always took issue with that sort of mindset for a few reasons, but primarily due to the intransigence of the artists involved with regards to cooperation and collaboration. The new scene will always overthrow the old in terms of sales and chic, but there is gold to be mined from the efforts of great artists of any genre working together.
Take, for example, the latest record from soul troubadour Al Green. He is one of the few names in soul left with instant name recognition; his works in the early ‘70s are held up as shining examples of the genre. That heavenly voice has infused life into many a song that might have otherwise failed. The past few decades have seen average results from the man, although that is something to be expected from older artists.
Add to the formula current artists who understand the legacy of what/who came before them and can legitimately add to it -- Lay It Down offers a plethora of such men and women: John Legend, Questlove, Anthony Hamilton, James Poyser, and Corinne Bailey Rae. The focus of the record may be on Green, but each of these artists brings their tastes and sensibilities that add to the foundation.
Soul music has fallen on hard times in the past decades, at least in this reviewer’s humble estimation, and that is a terrible shame. Music inspires feelings in people, and great soul does that very thing but at the same time stirs your very core to get up and move. Al Green has always understood this, and Lay It Down never loses sight of this basic principle.
Despite having reached the age of 62, Green’s voice remains one of the more magnificent in music. His ability to wring forth such emotion out of every note sung is a rare gift, and it has aged as well as a fine wine. This is evident during the opening title track; as the music reaches a majestic crescendo, Green matches it in every respect. It is a stunning way to open a record and to reclaim a legacy.
But if not for the efforts of Questlove and Poyser, this album may never have come to pass in the fashion it did. When word first reached my ears that these were the men in charge of producing an Al Green record, my excitement was palpable. Those expectations were fulfilled in a most satisfactory way. The elements of the vintage Green sound are present: the punchy brass sections, the incomparable grooves, the lush orchestration. Yet there is a contemporary vibe that permeates the proceedings. Lay It Down is not a retread, it is a refinement.
Collaboration is the word of the day, although it does not happen nearly enough for my liking. I would imagine that the clash of personalities and ego make it very difficult for many artists to work together and create, but one would have to hope the potential for the great music would overcome such petty differences. In this case, the fruits of the older generation and that of the new leave the consumer with an Album of the Year candidate.