Spins

I Can't Stop
AL GREEN
Blue Note

File this one under: You can't go home again. For his debut album on the legendary Blue Note label, soul legend Al Green tried to recapture past glory by reuniting with producer Willie Mitchell, the man who crafted the spare, singer-friendly tracks for such early '70s gems as "Let's Stay Together," "Tired of Being Alone" and "I'm Still in Love With You." Additionally, I Can't Stop features all new material penned by Green and Mitchell or Green alone. And on top of that, it's Green's first secular album in quite some time. A terrific idea. On paper.

So what did this once-vaunted team do? They made an overproduced album gorged with horns, backing vocals and big arrangements that all but choke off the remarkable capacity for intimacy that Green's singing possesses. In the what-were-they-thinking? category, the opening title track rolls along on a hackneyed disco beat. Longtime Green fans expecting the suppleness, the delicacy balanced with strength that characterized his best work will likely be disappointed.

My suspicion is that Mitchell felt the need to cover up some of Green's diminished vocal chops. The singer doesn't sound bad, just brassier and more prone to histrionics. Hey, it's a quarter-century later, after all. But here Green has to fight through the arrangements. A more satisfying approach would've been to boldly feature his vocals in their less-than-perfect state. It worked for Billie Holiday, and her voice was tenfold more ravaged than Al Green's.

Although I Can't Stop includes several capable songs, most of them ballads, nothing approaches the classics from years past. The hooks don't quite strike gold, and the lyrics are weighed down with cliches. When Green sang about love in the first half of the '70s, even shopworn ideas resonated with truth. Not so with these selections.

When it's all said and done, though, it's still Al Green, who's got a lot left in the tank. Can't Stop is a disappointment, but it's not a bust. —ERIC SNIDER

ME FIRST & THE GIMME GIMMES
Fat Wreck Chords

Some one-trick ponies remain in the show long after their particular trick has ceased to be amazing or even interesting. And theoretically, the punk-rock "supergroup" cover band Me First & The Gimme Gimmes (featuring members of NOFX, Lagwagon and Foo Fighters) should be boring as hell by now. They've milked the concept of smarmily supercharging classic tunes we all grew up hearing on the radio far beyond any kitsch-related shelf life. So their fourth album, Take A Break, should by all rights elicit a great big bored-hipster sigh. It doesn't, however, because it's end-to-end the best collection of tracks the band has put together. Maybe it took this long to regain the passion. Maybe it took this long to find a stride. Maybe it took this long to realize that once they covered all the obvious songs, the good ones that were left had to be executed in unusually badass fashion. Who cares? Take A Break is mix-tape gold from start to finish: Whitney Houston's "Where Do Broken Hearts Go?"; Lionel Richie's "Hello"; the Prince-penned Sinead O'Connor hit "Nothing Compares 2 U"; R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly"; and the AM-staple "Natural Woman." Whatever the reason, this disc is more frenzied, funnier, and more likely to not get yanked out of your CD changer at a party after three tracks than anything these miscreants have done yet. No, it's not an original idea. But it's certainly an extremely satisfying exhibition of a tired one. 1/2 —Scott Harrell

Blazing Horns/Tenor In Roots
Tommy McCook
Blood and Fire

One great aspect of the Blood and Fire reissue series is the way it raises the historic profile of some of reggae's best instrumentalists. Tenor saxophonist (and sometime flutist) Tommy McCook was a founding member of The Skatalites (lore says he came up with the band's name) and later went on to be one of reggae's top session musicians. This 20-song, 75-minute set gathers obscure late '70s material from the tiny Grove label, including stuff from a white-label pressing that was never released. When it came to saxophone mastery, McCook would've never made Sonny Rollins sweat, but his folksy style was perfect for the genre, with a robust tone and hearty way with a melody. This compendium is not so much a showcase for McCook's improvisational prowess as it's a hefty dose of rootsy instrumental reggae, with splashes of dub thrown in. The first (and best) 10 tracks feature a fabulous band built around the Sly and Robbie rhythm section. www.bloodandfire.co.uk 1/2—ERIC SNIDER

The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions
MILES DAVIS
Columbia/Legacy

After Bitches Brew, there was no going back. Miles Davis had just completed the sessions that would make up his seminal fusion album when he reconvened a slew of players in New York to take his plugged-in concept even further. A Tribute to Jack Johnson did not make near the waves of Bitches Brew, but it cemented the notion that the trumpeter would never be an acoustic post-bopper again. This five-disc collection is made up of 11 recording sessions in the first half of 1970 that brought a more rugged, rock edge to Miles' sound. Most of the music is built around repetitive grooves and vamps, allowing for wide-open harmonic possibilities and exploratory solos. Jack Johnson was essentially a coming-out party for guitarist John McLaughlin, who's all over these discs playing everything from funky wah-wah riffs to fire-spewing solos. Most of the music is purposefully unrefined — grist for extensive post-session editing. There's lots of great stuff here, including a couple of pieces that border on free cacophony (which Miles professed to loathe), but also a fair amount of redundancy. Let's just say that buyers should be big, big fans of Miles' electro-groove music. 1/2—ERIC SNIDER

Back at the Velvet Lounge
FRED ANDERSON
Delmark

He's an unsung tenor saxophonist who, at 74, deftly bridges the gap between post-bop and the avant-garde. Fred Anderson is also the manager of Chicago's Velvet Lounge, where he still tends bar now and then. Thank goodness he gets to use the stage. Back at the Velvet is a terrific live document of a band tearing it up in a small, unpretentious venue. Using his brawny tone and endless stream of ideas, Anderson jousts with 22-year-old trumpet firebrand Maurice Brown, while bassist Tatsu Aoki and drummer Chad Taylor churn and burn and guitarist Jeff Parker contributes coy commentary. The program ranges from frenetic outre-bop to dirges to loping blues, but most of the music swings at a steady pulse in favor of free rhythm, and that's a good thing. — ERIC SNIDER

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