Willie Mitchell’s production style continues to impress me with its consistency, restraint and understanding of Al Green’s special needs. Because the singer disdains most forms of discipline, preferring to let his voice wander into every nook and cranny of the modest melodies he writes, turning phrases inside out, and wreaking havoc with vocal structure in general, he requires the leveling force of a steady band playing tight, clean arrangements. Mitchell and Co. provide the latter, unafraid of the criticism that he and Green are repeating themselves. If something is good they stay with it.
And — if the lovely “You Ought to Be with Me” is another chapter in the “Let’s Stay Together” book, it’s a damn good chapter and I enjoy it all the more for the similarities it shares with the earlier song. In fact, I wouldn’t mind hearing a 40-minute album made up of the basic Al Green riff, but that is, no doubt, a minority taste.
It is in his attempts to give his albums some variety that Green frequently disappoints. In this case there is an engaging spiritual, “Jesus Is Waiting,” and two country ballads, “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” The latter are superior to past efforts like “Mend a Broken Heart” and “For the Good Times,” merely by virtue of their relative understatement and brevity. But they don’t hold a candle to Green’s master soul ballad performance, from Green Is Blue, “One Woman.”, Together, these three songs — a full third of the album — only divert us from the Green style without claiming our attention through any special quality of their own. And they also jar by their excessive use of crude double-tracked lead vocals.
In that light the album’s staples sound all the more refreshing. “Call Me” has lovely voices and a steady beat; “Stand Up” offers nice variations on the basic Green tempo; “Your Love Is Like the Morning Sun” is pleasantly relaxed; and “Here I Am” has an exceptional vocal, clever guitar dissonances and a toughsounding veneer. The best of them, “You Ought to Be with Me,” blends into the basic Al Green persona without making us think twice about it.
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Regrettably, none of these measure up to the very top of Green’s past form — there is no masterpiece along the lines of “Love And Happiness.” But then even the best artists can’t hit a bull’s-eye every time out. And if Green never hits the highest points of earlier albums he also misses the lowest ones, giving the album an endlessly playable quality sometimes missing in the past.
The accompanying musicians continue to improve and provide a substance of their own. It would be remiss for anyone to review another Al Green record without finally giving guitarist Tennie Hodges some special credit. Since his amazingly refreshing bit on “Love And Happiness,” his preeminence as an R&B instrumentalist ought to go unquestioned; his parts are so subtle that the listener frequently remains unaware of their effectiveness. This album’s exception is on “Here I Am” where the glow of his playing is overshadowed only by Green’s singing.
Green himself doesn’t progress so much as fill out. He doesn’t have one of the great R&B voices but he now sings with such authority that it doesn’t make any difference. His lyrics are too casual but I don’t suppose he will ever write narratives. He is on to something, keeps on pushing and takes the listener with him. Call Me is not an exceptional Al Green album, but it is as solid as a rock at its center. And that is what keeps me coming back for more.