"Love and Happiness" Is Forever
So, it looks like this summer is actually providing some pretty good music to listen to. I'm digging the new Estelle, Portishead, N.E.R.D., and Roots, but you know what I think is my favorite new joint of all? My favorite album right now is the new Al Green, Lay It Down. I mean, just to save some of my cred and try to slow my descent into Old Cranky Mandom, it is produced by modern-day wunderkinds, Questlove and James Poyser, but to be perfectly honest, the new Al Green sounds exactly like the old Al Green. That's what makes it so good, though; one of these classic R&B artists finally got the memo that relevance doesn't matter if what you're making is timeless.
It's a shame, because so many older R&B acts just don't seem to get it. I have to admit, after Green's previous lackluster adult-contemporary-radio-ready album, I Can't Stop, anything new from the singer was off of my radar until I was reading an interview with Questlove in last month's Wax Poetics. Besides getting me interested in the new album, I was also just heartbroken by an anecdote the producer shared about doing some work for Earth, Wind, and Fire; EWF frontman Maurice White told Quest that his work sounded like it came out of 1975. The sad part is that White didn't mean it as a compliment. While I love Maurice White like an uncle, this value judgment is so incredibly wrongheaded that it makes my head hurt. Earth, Wind, and Fire should always sound exactly like it did in 1975 because that's when it was perfect.
White isn't the only artist like that either. Like, my absolute favorite fantasy (well, my favorite one that doesn't involve a DeLorean time machine, some Jiffy Pop popcorn, a jar of honey, Dorothy Dandrige from the set of Carmen Jones, and Pam Grier from the set of Coffy . . . ) is to break into Stevie Wonder's studio and destroy every piece of equipment built after 1980. Like Earth, Wind, and Fire (and pretty much every R&B singer over the age of 40), Wonder went through this post-hip-hop thing where he wanted to be contemporary, to reach out to "the young folks," and ended up making a bunch of wack music trying to get away from what he views as his "old" sound. And it never really works. OK, Aretha Franklin has made some interesting stuff; Who's Zoomin' Who? has aged surprisingly well, and I have a strange fascination with James Brown's '80s stuff. But for every "Static" I've had to stomach dozens of badly produced "trendy" songs from people who should know better.
The sad irony is that what much of the younger audience wants is the style that these folks are running from. The closest to a fistfight that I've seen in the past 10 years occurred because one of my friends observed--rather astutely, I thought--that Justin Timberlake was making the best Michael Jackson music since Thriller, and one of my other friends thought such a statement was sacrilege. But it was true, and it's still pretty much true, although you could argue that Ne-Yo is giving him a run for his money. Amy Winehouse, Raheem DeVaughn, Jill Scott, Adele, Erykah Badu, pretty much anyone ever tagged with that "neo-soul" label, and anybody making interesting soul music from England, all of them are basically making versions of the old music that many of the originators seem to avoid.
Green's new album takes full advantage of this organic connection. Obviously, Questlove and Poyser are good production choices because both come from the musical heritage that Green helped construct. It also makes sense that Anthony Hamilton would make a guest appearance on Lay It Down, because the young singer mines the same gritty, soulful vein that Green did 30 years ago. Likewise the Dap-Kings, most famous for their work with Amy Winehouse, show up because they are the musical successors of the Memphis Horns section that Green helped make famous. Unlike other collaborations with younger artists that end up coming off as awkward posturing to the kids (I'm looking right at you, Ron "Mr. Big" Isley), the cross-generational partnering on Lay It Down flows seamlessly and naturally to produce one of the best soul albums I've heard in years.
And I hope he sells an ass-load of copies. I hope Green's example that some styles aren't styles at all, but rather truth-telling, resonates with all the right people and he's rewarded for his efforts. But, mostly, I hope some artists take his example to heart and, maybe this time next year, I'll be writing about how much I love Stevie Wonder's new album.
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