Al Green returns to form

Lay It Down, plus Radiohead's Best Of.

Lay It Down
AL GREEN

(Blue Note)

Al Green's first two albums for Blue Note — Can't Stop (2003) and Everything's OK (2005) — reunited him with Willie Mitchell, the producer who oversaw the singer's reign in the '70s. The tandem returned to the old studio and rounded up players from the old days, and the results sounded predictably old — Green came off as a still-talented relic trying to recapture the glory days.

That's changed with Lay It Down, where the legend collaborates with younger artists who once worshiped at the altar of Al Green (not literally, like at his Memphis church, but as a secular icon). Ironic, perhaps, but this disc does a far better job of capturing the magic of yore than its two predecessors.

Green co-produced Lay It Down with ?uestlove from the Roots and neo-soul keyboardist James Poyser; among his youthful collaborators are the Dap-King Horns and singing sidekicks Anthony Hamilton, Corinne Bailey Rae and John Legend. Collectively, the creative nexus delivers the kind of medium- to downtempo flow that makes for particularly sensuous listening. Strings, horns, organ and jazzy guitar add to the old-school cred.

On the Mitchell-produced discs of the 2000s, Green sounded like he was phonin' it in at times. For Lay It Down, he brought his vocal A-game. The Rev breaks out the full arsenal: the full-throated, quasi-soul shout, the fraying falsetto, the airy whisper, the bent phrases, the impeccable pauses, the trick-bag of gospel melisma. He is, at 62, still one of the very best to ever wield a microphone. (To bolster that notion: Can you name a viable Al Green imitator?)

Lay It Down has its shortcomings, yes. The brain trust penned the tunes in the studio on the fly, using jams and grooves as launch points. A lot of the lyrics — mostly romantic platitudes — sound as if they were scribbled out on scrap paper in minutes. And that's because they probably were. Some of the hooks are thin — "I'm Wild About You," "Too Much" — and some are partly recycled from earlier material, but even those come off as worthy vehicles for Green's mastery.

As far as the guest vocalists, Green both overshadows and brings out the best in them. Hamilton hangs solid on the pumping "You've Got the Love I Need"; Bailey Rae's sexy sigh is a nice foil to Green on the ballad "Take Your Time." Most surprising is how Legend, a lightweight, handles himself on "Stay With Me (By the Sea)," working his falsetto in ways he probably never thought he could. Even with these viable contributions from the young'uns, though, Lay It Down remains very much the Al Green show. It's a disc that a lot of doubters — me included — didn't think he had in him. 4 stars —Eric Snider

The Best Of
RADIOHEAD

(Capitol/EMI)

When a band leaves its label, like Radiohead did recently to drop In Rainbows on its own, the former employer typically cashes in posthaste with a greatest-hits collection. Or several collections, which is what EMI has unveiled all at once. Since Radiohead managed to conquer the (alternative) rock world with only a lone radio hit (its debut single, "Creep"), the folks at EMI wisely dubbed the new two-disc compilation Best Of, and it lives up to the billing. For starters, there are no glaring omissions — no "where the fuckstick is "Karma Police?" — you know, the kind of "errors" that speak to a record company greedily holding out for a Volume 2 payday. The Radiohead double-disc "special edition," 30-track Best Of (there's also a single disc, 17-track edition) spans the band's entire pre-In Rainbows career, even including a track, "True Love Waits," from the 2001 mini-album I Might Be Wrong: Live Recordings. One quibble: Why not sequence the collection chronologically instead of ad hoc? In addition to these twin Best Of CDs, June 3 also marked the day EMI dropped Radiohead: The Best Of (a four-LP vinyl set), 17-track and 30-track downloads, and a DVD "featuring 21 classic promo videos." 4 stars —Wade Tatangelo

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