Over the past year, a new generation of soul crooners -- D'Angelo, Maxwell and Tony Rich -- has revivified R&B vocals by dumping the new-jack croak that Boyz II Men still use to line their pockets with gold. These fellows are slipping into the darker, creamy stylings of the 1970s, a decade exemplified by two gold standards: Marvin Gaye and Al Green.
Gaye, in whose Stacy Adams footfalls the young bloods are following, wasn't just able to use the haunted beauty of his vocals to seduce and cajole; he could caress social protest and love song alike -- an approach his original inheritor, Prince, still summons when he wants to do business. Still, for Gaye this wasn't enough. Like everyone else of his generation, white or black, he wanted to be Frank Sinatra.
Legend has it that Gaye, playing his first big engagement in San Francisco, was determined to spread the supper-club syrup of Frank (by then, he had already posed for an embarrassing Ocean's 11 album cover photo, complete with stiff-brimmed fedora snapped over his eyes and folded trench coat over his midriff). Motown's Berry Gordy went red-eyed, insisting the crowd was at the show to see Marvin do Marvin. After an argument that may have, at the very least, led to a slapfest, Gaye hit the stage, coming on in the wake of an intro that reminded the audience of all his early era Motown hits ("Ain't That Peculiar," "Wonderful One," etc.). The crowd, whipped up to a galelike frenzy, greeted Gaye, who stepped before the mike, thanked them shyly, then trilled, "Me and my shadow ...."
After a series of beautifully mastered rereleases of the Marvin Gaye catalog, Motown has finally put out a collection of Gaye's renditions of pop standards titled Vulnerable -- and it proves that Gordy, not Gaye, was right. It's evidence that even Gaye could ignore his gifts. He doesn't reinterpret "The Shadow of Your Smile" in the divinely blasphemous way he did "The Star-Spangled Banner" -- he even sings much of the material in the lower range with which he worked his earlier Motown stuff -- and so he comes off as nothing more than curiously unimaginative.
Gaye could sing material written by others, specifically if it freed something in him, but none of the pieces on Vulnerable does that; he appears instead to be unnerved by them. What Vulnerable does begin to suggest is the multitude of contradictions battling inside him. On "She Needs Me," you can just about hear Gaye wrestling with all his instincts and refusing to give in, a tiny taste of the self-destructiveness that later did him in. (PP)
Al Green may, on the surface, look like a less-conflicted Marvin Gaye. At one time, when Motown was briefly caretaker of the Hi Records catalog, Green was even a stablemate of Gaye's. (Also, Green's last name was originally spelled Greene, and Gaye came into the world without the e, so there was some kind of spiritual vowel exchange between them as well.) But now the Greenography has ended up in the hands of Right Stuff, which has just sent the immensely pleasurable Al Green Anthology into the world. Coming in the wake of Right Stuff's Hi Times: The Hi Record Years, which included many of the Al Green songs that haven't really disappeared, Anthology feels vaguely redundant. There are now two places to find Green's playfully sizzling take on "I Want to Hold Your Hand," in which he names it and claims it. And yet there cannot be a world with too much Al Green.
Anthology goes hurtling to the beginning and the unformed single, "Back Up Train," where Green was first looking for a way to reconcile his Christian leanings with the secular. (Gaye, too, faced that struggle. And with both men, it was an extraordinary conflict that they were never really able to harness.) On "Train," Willie Mitchell's production -- with the trim, sly Hi Rhythm Section -- was contoured to Green; intriguingly, what Anthology makes evident is that over the years there wasn't so much an evolution in Al Green's performances as there was a fine-tuning, and the enormity of delight in hearing Green vary and intensify his attack by cubic centimeters is an inspiration.
Green was known for being a studio monster, a man who treated each recording as if he were engaged in microsurgery. Some of the live versions on this compilation -- such as "We've Only Just Begun/Let's Stay Together" and "Love and Happiness" -- present the ballooning joy Green exhibited on-stage, something the records, though brilliant in their appearance of abandon, don't really allow us to hear.
Still, as engaging as Anthology is, I can't help but wish a little more thought had been put into its assembly. For example, following the live "You Ought to Be with Me" with the studio version would have allowed for a little compare-and-contrast, but the listener's left with only the concert renditions of a few of the songs. Too, I craved the inclusion of the single version of "Call Me," which is essentially the same as the album take but with a brief call-and-response vocal from Green during the chorus that makes the song even more lovely; sadly, it's not here.
Conceptually, the idea of the box set has been honed to something resembling a science: These massive collections are supposed to be archivists' wishes come true. Anthology is more of a Green lover's daydream. The raw material is the stuff of genius -- but here it has been collected uninterestingly. For example, because the schism in Green's life between being a secular singer and a religious one seems so complete, it's probably easy to break his career into R&B and gospel divisions, as is done on Anthology. But Green's recorded output wasn't nearly so neat: "Jesus Is Waiting," one of the most divine songs he ever recorded, is on the early and secular Call Me album and is an eye-popping departure in the midst of the pop yearning that surrounds it.
Though Anthology provides a brief audio clip from the documentary Gospel According to Al Green, it doesn't really get into what it meant when Green turned his back on the pop world. Rarely has a performer left audiences as hurt as Green did when he decided to walk away from secular music; people are still blinking confusedly about that move almost 20 years later. With very few exceptions -- his duet with Lyle Lovett on "Funny How Time Slips Away," which Green originally covered long before he converted to gospel (surprisingly, neither version is included on Anthology) -- he has held to his convictions. As an anthology, Anthology doesn't set a context for its subject, something the liner notes are left to explain.
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Perhaps that's nitpicking, because this collection is a tribute to the casual power of Al Green, whose potency, with the sharpest of gospel-tinged undercurrent, brought a new, spare poshness to R&B. The youngsters may try to rock it old-world, but the clear-headed efficiency of Al Jackson's snare and the light-fingered charm of Teenie Hodges's guitar work created a first -- R&B minimalism -- around which Green fashioned his magic. Listening to it collected on Anthology doesn't rob Green of his explosiveness; it's as if he had an angel inside him, and it's more than he can contain -- especially on "Jesus Is Waiting," which is so perfect it can make you weep. (****)
There was probably something other than an angel inside Gaye -- though he had one of those too -- and Green and Gaye complemented each other because of the ease and urgency they could conjure simultaneously. Their next-generation imitators, likable as they are, still have a way to go before their different sides can jell into such a complete whole.
-- Elvis Mitchell
**** Knocking on heaven's door
*** Mortal coil