Green Pieces

New CD releases capture the idiosyncratic spirit of Al Green

The dirty secret about CD reissues is that too many of them remaster, repackage, and re-release familiar material in an attempt to get devoted fans to spend more money on music.

Not so with the latest five-disc batch of Al Green reissues, which capture the soul genius during a stretch of generally uncelebrated music made on the downside of his musical prime.

The series starts with 1973's Livin' For You, Green's first album after his career-best Call Me, and ends with 1978's Truth N' Time, Green's final secular pop album before devoting himself to his ministry. In between are 1975's Al Green Is Love and the 1976 pairing Full of Fire and Have a Good Time. Two albums are omitted from the chronology, both ringers -- 1974's Al Green Explores Your Mind, which boasts the eternal non-single "Take Me To the River," and 1977's brilliant self-produced anomaly The Belle Album, generally regarded as Green's final classic.

The result is that this current batch of Green reissues exactly triangulates a period -- after the hits slowed down but before Green abandoned pop for the pulpit -- likely to be uncharted territory for most fans. These records had been relatively hard to find before, but if you're a Green fan whose collection consists of only Call Me or Let's Stay Together or some type of greatest-hits compilation, here's a chance to dig deeper into his catalogue.

Coming only a few months after Call Me, Livin' For You is still prime material, even if it didn't produce hits of the magnitude of which Green had grown accustomed. His last record featuring Booker T. & the MGs drummer Al Jackson (who would be killed soon after), the record retains the classic, consistent Hi Records groove that producer Willie Mitchell fashioned around Green's idiosyncratic singing. The first side is a cohesive search for contentment. (Just look at some of the song titles -- "Home Again," "Let's Get Married," "So Good to Be Here.") Though ostensibly secular, it has a devotional quality and melding of the romantic with the spiritual more pronounced than ever before in Green's work. Then, on the second side, Green gets weird as only he could: jailbait hymn, deconstructed Righteous Brothers cover, plea to God, and an eight-minute vamp ("Beware") that feels almost improvised.

Ultimately, Livin' For You belongs on the Green short list, after the flawless Call Me but alongside The Belle Album, I'm Still in Love With You, and Al Green Gets Next to You. The rest of the albums in this series are clearly second-tier by comparison, but hold up amazingly well. There's no other soul singer whose eighth or ninth or tenth best records sound so fine from front to back, and few rock acts that could make such a claim.

Al Green Is Love is the worst of the bunch. The hit "L-O-V-E (Love)" sounds like old times, but after that the record flies off the tracks a bit, the groove less steady, the mood more unhinged. The sig-nature subtle, bottom-heavy Hi groove gets discombobulated, with the strings and horns too pronounced, and rather than the romantic concept the album title implies, the content is more personal and tortured than ever before. Then again, this is still a full album of Al Green singing.

The 1976 tandem of Full of Fire and Have a Good Time are more alert, more musically assured records, though far different from each other. Full of Fire opens with the nearly gospel "Glory, Glory" and sounds like classic Hi, but the record is most notable for the title single and "Let It Shine," successful attempts by Green and Mitchell at blending Southern soul with the sped-up tempos of the then-emerging disco scene.

Have a Good Time marks the last partner-ship between Green and Mitchell (at least until their recent reunion) and is probably the most straightforward soul album the pair ever made together, with punchier horns, snappier backbeats, and Green reaching back to the kind of soul shouting not heard since 1970's Al Green Gets Next To You. Retreating from the disco gambit of Full of Fire, the album's simple, lovely, singalong-worthy title track suggests Sam Cooke at his intersection of pop and gospel, except Green was heading in the opposite direction.

Green's follow-up to The Belle Album, the also-self-produced Truth N' Time has the combi-nation of personal weirdness and musical focus that marks Green's most audacious work. If the album doesn't have anywhere near the reputation of The Belle Album, it's probably because it lacked the sense of surprise, the conceptual clarity, and a hit as undeniable as "Belle." But it's a really terrific album on its own terms -- one of Green's most underrated -- with the singer's genius apparent in covers of "To Sir With Love" and, especially, a quick, intense reading of "I Say a Little Prayer."

Green may have been the last great link in a long tradition of Southern soul stars, but he also stood apart from that tradition. With his lexicon of purrs, sighs, aches, squeals, and breathy asides, he was a more idiosyncratic singer than any of his musical forbears, seemingly both more sophisticated and more instinctive. And while Elvis Presley was the more momentous artist in terms of cultural impact, when it comes to pure music, it may actually be Green who boasts the deepest and most durable discography Memphis has ever seen. These reissues are a testament to the depth of Green's output.

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