AL GREEN Explores Your Mind (The Right Stuff/Hi)

“Explores Your Mind” is Al Green’s eighth album, originally released in 1973 and now sporting the regulation 24-bit remastering and new liner note regalia, although there’s no bonus material to enhance its slender half-hour duration.

The album opens with its sole single, the transatlantic top 20 hit “Sha La La (Make Me Happy)”. Beginning with sweeping, dancing orchestrations, Al loosens a little chuckle before gliding effortlessly and gracefully into his creamy smooth vocal. A rippling Hammond and rustling percussion integrate seamlessly into the exotic sonic tapestry, and it all sounds so intuitive and unforced that any accusations of a lack of lyrical substance are soon overlooked: it’s a three-minute pocket soul symphony. There is, however, a tragic undertow to the piece: whilst working on the song Green was visited by his girlfriend, Mary Woodson, who didn’t particularly appreciate his happy-go-lucky attitude. Woodson poured boiling grits over Green whilst he was bathing, causing second-degree burns over his back, stomach and arms, before committing suicide using Al’s gun.

Although not a single, “Take Me To The River” is perhaps the album’s true fulcrum. Listeners more familiar with the myriad covers the song has spawned, in particular Talking Heads’ version, might be jolted both by Green’s spoken introductory tribute to his late cousin and soul legend Junior Parker and by the more urgent, if hardly frantic, pace. Note also how David Byrne sanitised the chorus, from Green’s more overtly religious “Take me to the river/And wash me down/Won’t you cleanse my soul/Put my feet on the ground” to “Take me to the river/And drop me in the water/Push me in the river/Dip me in the water” and variants thereof.

“God Blessed Our Love” already sounds like a slice of historic Southern soul although, like everything on the album, it was freshly written or co-written by Green himself for the occasion. His little interjections and ad-libs between the chorus lines give the song a living, breathing personality all its own. “One Nite Stand” finds Al negotiating that tricky swerve from the cerebral to the carnal that perhaps only Marvin Gaye could perform with such Úlan. This pre-AIDS celebration in which everybody gets what they want and nobody gets hurt seems oddly quaint 30 years on, like the contents of a time capsule, although not the kind of thing likely to be dug up in the “Blue Peter” garden.

The pace, melody and sentiment of “I’m Hooked On You” all conspire to make it appear a slightly paler shadow of “Let’s Stick Together”, prominently featuring Howard Grimes’ slightly flat, tubby drum sound, something that’s all over the Al Green discography. The craftsmanship arguably peaks on the sumptuous “Hangin’ On”, its steady-rolling beat subtly disrupted by pizzicato strings and mischievous melodic sidesteps, crowned by Green’s glorious chorus falsetto. There’s so much innovation and invention here – the product of Green’s symbiotic relationship with co-producer Willie Mitchell, perhaps – yet the surfaces of these songs remain utterly smooth and unruffled. It’s apparent yet again on “School Days”, which opens with gentle childhood nostalgia yet imperceptibly morphs into aching longing.

If “Explores Your Mind” has a failing, it’s that it lacks the cohesion that makes the previous year’s “Call Me” an even greater work. That album, with its Hank Williams and Willie Nelson covers, approached the country-soul fusion essayed by The Flying Burrito Brothers from the opposite direction, with equal, perhaps even greater, success. In comparison, “Explores Your Mind” is ‘merely’ a collection of really good Al Green songs, which is still hardly the faintest of praise.

AL GREEN Let's Stay Together (Fat Possum)

On "Let's Stay Together", originally released in 1972, the Reverend sings the gospel of love found, misplaced and regained, exemplified by the deathless title track, arguably Green's signature tune. Buttery-smooth yet infused with the sour tang of regret, a cover of the Bee Gees' "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart" effortlessly demonstrates Al's ability to take possession of a song, a trait furthered on the later "Call Me" album where he would recast compositions by Hank Williams and Willie Nelson as Southern soul classics.

 Oh, but what a travesty Fat Possum's thankfully limited 180 gram vinyl reissue of this album is. Vague and curiously cuppy-sounding, as if many generations away from anything that could be mistaken for a master tape, it's as if somebody's thrown curtains over the speakers. Only the strongest songs can fight their way through the murk. I'm sure "Let's Stay Together" is a better album than the one I have here, but it's a tragedy and a travesty that the current pressing prevents me from hearing it.

AL GREEN The Hi Singles As And Bs (Music On Vinyl)

A sound concept for a compilation, this triple LP gathers up all the Willie Mitchell-produced A and B sides Al Green released on the Hi label. Given the titular framework, it might be criticised for concentrating on Green’s more consciously commercial moments, but from my limited knowledge of his discography he doesn’t seem to be the type to clog up his long-players with side-long jazz odysseys. (Even as I write that, though, it occurs to me that the immaculate country-soul conception he describes on the “Call Me” album, covering Hank Williams and Willie Nelson, is absent here.) 

The opening cover of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” sounds uncannily like the work of a reincarnation of Otis Redding, the white heat of Beatlemania miraculously transmogrified into gritty Southern soul. For all its excellence arguably he hasn’t yet become Al Green yet, although he soon would be. It’s a bit of a shock to hear the future Reverend cheating on his lover on “One Woman”, but at least he has the decency to sound conflicted about it. Similarly, the James Brown grunts that pepper “All Because” are something of an affront to expectations. The rambunctious nature of L-O-V-E (Love)” might surprise those only familiar with the song from Orange Juice’s typically wan cover.

Green’s is a remarkably insular music: although there’s definitely some kind of change, if not progress, afoot during the seven years this collection surveys, it’s more like a continual, gradual refinement of the initial template. It’s not as though he suddenly goes glam, prog or punk at any point. Even the most “Saturday Night Fever”y moment here, “Full Of Fire”, is underwritten by his growing reaffirmation of his gospel roots in the line “There must be an upper power that is holding my hand”.  There’s a darkness to some of his later work as well, as even the title of “Strong As Death (Sweet As Love)” attests. Although it’s not hard to see why the hits became the hits, there’s often something subtle and insidious about the remainder that makes it hard to pick out highlights.

This is a typically well-pressed Music On Vinyl reissue, but one that equally typically falls short of the audiophile grade claimed by its own cover sticker. It sounds a bit overly gritty and murky in places, but it’s still some way ahead of Fat Possum’s recent vinyl ruination of the man’s back catalogue. 

AL GREEN I’m Still In Love With You (Fat Possum) 

Following Music On Vinyl’s pretty good really, all things considered, triple album “The Hi Singles As And Bs”, it’s back down to audiophile earth with a bump courtesy of Fat Possum’s assault on Al Green’s fifth album, originally released in 1972. It’s a rare album that sounds so poor that it has me wishing that those responsible had just cut the vinyl version from a CD instead, but really, what on earth were they using as a source here? As with the same company’s “Let’s Stay Together”, it sounds like a bad pre-recorded cassette, this thankfully limited edition being blanketed in a fluffy murk that saps the soul power of what, somewhere underneath, is undoubtedly a great album.

Musically, as far as the shoddy presentation permits, “I’m Still In Love With You” is a slow burning but gently joyous record. Almost every track title simmers with positivity even when the song itself undercuts the notion, for example Al’s glorious take on Kris Kristofferson’s “For The Good Times”, a study in restraint and regret. (There’s probably an entertaining playlist possibility in bringing together Green’s various experiments in country-soul cross-pollination). A cover of Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” gently brings the funk to bear, loosening the song up ever so slightly without ever losing grip on the rhythm. A great album, then, but don’t hear it this way.