Earlier this year, two very special songwriters and singers signed with and recorded and released their debuts for Blue Note records.
Al Green and Van Morrison were both very different but important parts of the musical 1970s. Songs like “Let’s Stay Together” and “Tired of Being Alone” (by Green) and “Moondance” and “Brown Eyed Girl” (Morrison) were more than just good records. Green was helping to invent the modern sound of southern soul with producer Willie Mitchell at Hi Records in Memphis. A soul-searing lyricist who mixed blues, jazz, soul, and folk from the US and the United Kingdom, Morrison relentlessly reinvented not only his material but the role and soul of the troubadour – not just the message but the message AND the messenger – in the modern world. These were more than just good records; they served as mileposts in the musical journey of the decade.
Their returns bring back their classic sounds intact. With these new records, the present whizzes back into the past...or perhaps the past comes flowing into the present.
Al Green: I Can’t Stop
Some of the most classic of the classic sounds of 1970s soul were written, arranged, and performed by Green and producer Willie Mitchell for the Hi label in Memphis. The two come back together with original Hi studio musicians (and for real soul brothers) Mabon “Teenie” Hodges on guitar and Leroy Hodges on bass, plus guitarist Charles Pitts (supporting axeman with Rufus Thomas and Isaac Hayes, stalwarts for the OTHER legendary Memphis soul label, Stax) and Green’s longtime drummer Steve Potts, among others, for Green’s first secular album in more than a decade.
I Can’t Stop sounds of a piece with Green’s 1970s majesty from the very beginning of its leadoff and title cut, with Green floating up on the top of the world, deeply digging a rock-steady mid-tempo groove, and testifying his love from the bottom of his...well, soul. “You” rings strongly with echoes of “Let’s Stay Together,” very straight-ahead in tempo, melody, and rhythm, which Potts stretches out and snaps back like a rubberband man. “Rainin’ in My Heart” and others stir up Green’s fiery gospel fever.
“My Problem Is You” blasts off with brassy Tower of Power horns then arches into a nice, loose blues, a gospel sort of church blues featuring plenty of call and response testifying between church choir and organ before the good Reverend Green rocks the bells all the way up in the steeple with the passion and fire of his final verse. Bubbling in New Orleans funk like gumbo, “Too Many” bursts with the flavors of second-line rhythms, two-handed piano, horn charts swinging back in tasty counterpoint commentary, and Jim Spake’s baritone sax squealing and dealing like a clarinet dancing through Dixieland.
No trickery, just good ol’ fashioned, gut-wrenching and honest soul. More than that, I Can’t Stop also demonstrates how deeply Green’s personal sound grew engrained in classic modern soul. He burns through the ballad “Not Tonight” not by screaming but by cooing and whispering, slowly and quietly, begging and suggesting, intensely, so much like William “Smokey” Robinson. In another Motown mood, “I’ve Been Waiting On You” moves up-tempo, shaking and finger-popping uptown like Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her.” Green also rocks the up-tempo “I’ve Been Thinking About You” hard and funky, like Otis Redding burning down the Stax Records house.
Tower of Power, Stax Records, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson...yet each of these songs still sounds like classic Al Green, too. I Can’t Stop leads the listener to wonder, “Hey, if you’re going this good, why would you WANT to stop?”
Van Morrison: What’s Wrong With This Picture?
As I have grown, Van Morrison has steadily become one of my favorite singers. Maybe because it’s so tough to explain what he does or what kind of singer he is. You find him lumped in retail bins between Meat Loaf and Morrissey under “pop/rock”... which is an easier sell, I guess, than “the real swinging Celtic folk blues” or something closer to the truth.
Underneath its surface, beneath the structure of its songs, What’s Wrong...? swims deeply in the blues. Some are obvious blues: A visit to “St. James Infirmary” done New Orleans style, Morrison’s original jump-blues “Whinin’ Boy Moan,” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’ “Stop Drinking,” a rockabilly stomp where guitarist Mick Green whips together the sounds of country and the blues, sounding like Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley’s first great guitarist.
But so much more in the frame of this Picture moans and exults like a blues, too. “Too Many Myths” weaves Morrison’s sense of wonder of how people so often make a spiritual mess of their lives through a twelve-bar blues featuring sweet guitar work from Foggy Little. “Goldfish Bowl,” a funky old-school New Orleans blues, and “Fame,” brightened again by Foggy, wobble and crunch out bad-ass slow-rolling blues about the perils of Morrison’s profession. Morrison rears back and throws nothing but scorching vocal fastballs fueled by power that comes not from volume but from an almost mystically intense focus on the lyrics, with no note flashy or superfluous. You can say the same for Morrison’s band and the way they breathe life into this music.
“Meaning of Loneliness,” a soft almost lounge-y ballad that intertwines cool shades from guitar and organ, ponders quite the existential blues: “Well, there’s Sartre and Camus/ Nietzche and Hesse/ If you dig deep enough, you’re gonna end up in distress/ No one escapes having to live life under duress/ And no one escapes the meaning of loneliness...” This sounds like the reflection of a man who has finally grown comfortable with feeling uncomfortable in his own skin, a man positively joyous to be vamping with the saxophone to bring this baby home.
“Fame,” “Goldfish Bowl,” and “Too Many Myths” all take aim at the myth of fame and fortune, played out by Morrison in his public role as a recording and performing artist. Success and its price may be worn-out targets, but when Morrison loads up his shotgun blues on this subject, fixes it in his sights and then pulls the trigger, he simply blows it to dust. “Goldfish Bowl” sort of explains what Van does, then explores who he is and who he is NOT: “I’m singing jazz, blues, and funk/ That’s not rock and roll/ Folk with a beat/ And a little bit of soul,” is what he sings; then he continues, “Just because they call me a celebrity/ That does not make it true/ ‘Cause I don’t believe in the myth, people/ So why should you?”
It seems a fair question.