Caught by the River

This, is Soul… (Paolo Hewitt on Erykah Badu & Al Green)

8th July 2008

So I am sitting outside the Italia, minding my own one afternoon, checking the shoes, checking the shirts, when a text arrives on my phone from Signor Chuvalli. I have known Signor Chuvalli since Jesus was breaking bread for the disciples and if there is one thing this boy knows about it is music. He has put me onto more good stuff than Maradona has scored goals. So when he writes that I have to hear the new Erykah Badu and Al Green albums, I’m down the shop, swift as a greyhound.
Now this girl Badu I remember from about a million years ago when that Nu Soul thing came up. In fact I heard that tune of hers On and On the other day and I got to say it was mighty groovy. But this album, Amerika, Jesus, this is something else. I mean I’m reading all these reviews lately about this guy being innovative and that band breaking new musical ground but believe me they ain’t close to what this girl is doing with this album.
All the time it is playing it’s like the ghosts of the past are drifting in front of my very eyes, like Sly and The Tower of Power and George Clinton and Eddie Kendricks and Bootsy and Stevie and solo Curtis, all that great heavy ’70s soul gear, but the great thing is that Erykah is right in there herself at the centre of it all directing the musical traffic. This ain’t pastiche; this is the past put through the future. This music is captivating and hypnotic and honest (she even sings about getting old and her ass getting bigger, that’s how straight this lady is with you) and its hip and its hip hop and its r’n’b and its beautiful and funky as hell. Its sloppy and carefree, and its about Amerika but it ain’t, and there’s even tracks on there which came about in jam sessions and she hasn’t had time to finish the lyrics but what the hell put it on there anyway, and that there is the spirit of this great album rolled up in one.
Funny, ain’t it? Everyone is looking towards this one and or that one for the real deal and suddenly it shows up from a source you had forgotten all about. Tell you what. Buy a copy. If you don’t like it, I will give you your de niro back. I’m serious That’s how good this album is. The fact that I will be abroad and uncontactable all summer will in no way affect this agreement………

I now put on the Al Green album. My sincere apologies. I don’t put on the Al Green album, I put on the Reverend Al Green album because this man is reverent and to be revered because that stuff he did in the 70s, that cool amazing Memphis sound he and Willie Mitchell came up with, those songs which break your heart the second he opens his voice, well that sound is one of the all time great sounds in music – up there with anything you care to mention.
Then Al played around a lot, got burnt, literally, found God, went off and became a Minster, started making Gospel albums, and a lot of good stuff in there as well.
But that period 1970 – 1977, the man was faultless. Now he has gone back and found the same groove, the same sound. And it’s amazing. You could put at least five of the songs on this album on one of his ‘70s LP’s and you wouldn’t spot the join.
He’s got it all back, the coo-ing backing singers, (both male and female,) the restrained bass and drums which sound like God tapping his fingers on your window sill, the quick organ licks, the funky bass lines, but above all he is singing like he did when he started out, his voice is fresh and clean and finding all kinds of little peaks and troughs, it’s soothing, sexy and salacious, swift, sullen and superb, and that’s because the songs here are quality, demanding and receiving the best out of him. There’s even one song where he takes out that beautiful descending guitar figure he used to love so much and he dusts it off and he starts singing around it and the hairs on your neck stand and applaud. .
Okay, the middle of the album sags, got to say that. They don’t keep up the pace but round about eighth or ninth track they wake up and get the whole thing back on course. When the album ends my main thought on the matter is this – God bless Al Green, I mean it, God bless him. You too, when you hear this music.

Paolo Hewitt