Thursday, January 20, 2011

I'd Love To Turn You on #25 - Al Green - The Belle Album

Over the course of ten albums in seven years, Al Green and producer Willie Mitchell turned Hi Records from a Stax-wannabe into the R&B label others tried to emulate, a reputation staked largely on Green’s recordings. Though other artists – notably Ann Peebles – were also the beneficiaries of Mitchell’s ideas, it was Green’s sensuous voice coupled with Mitchell’s lush productions and their pairing as a songwriting team that catapulted Hi to the commercial forefront. It would seem downright foolish to break up such a worthy partnership, but that’s exactly what happened at Hi for album eleven as Al’s previous three albums saw declining sales and fewer hit singles and public favor began to turn to disco, funk, and other forms of R&B, supplanting Green and Mitchell’s slow, sultry soul. Needing a shake-up, Mitchell was out and Green himself took the production reins, gathered a new band, and created his strongest album in years and very possibly his greatest album after the immortal Call Me.
Where most of Green’s albums hook you with their most up-front cuts and then over time work their way into you, this one uncharacteristically reaches out and shakes you up, an odd result when he goes largely acoustic and goes for more or less the same subtle grooves that he’d pursued for most of his career. It’s probably significant that Green had recently decided he needed a philosophical shift in his life, matched here by this musical shift. While God was never absent from Al's previous albums, here He's moved front and center thematically with Al leading the album telling Belle that it's her that he wants, "but Him that I need." From there things stay largely secular, though often tinged with the idea - especially in "Chariots of Fire" - that other realms are never far from Al's mind and even can be read into some of the other lyrics. Musically it's more assured (and varied) than Al's last few records - stronger and more consistent as a whole than anything since Call Me in fact - and in "Georgia Boy" he's found the perfect hot, hazy groove that feels all too short at seven minutes. But from the laid-back funk of “Georgia Boy” to the disco-tinged “I Feel Good” and back to the brilliant ballad “Belle” on down to the languorous “Dream” he makes one of his strongest album statements here.
Rather than signaling a commercial restart for Green, The Belle Album was his lowest charting record at Hi, “Belle” failed to chart as a single, and Green only made one more secular album, the 26-minute Truth N’ Time, before devoting himself fully to spiritual music for the better part of two decades. While he made some fascinating religious music and has since made a credible return to secular music, he has never again hit the heights of this terrific album.
Patrick Brown

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