It took more than 25 years -- from 1976's Have a Good Time to 2003's I Can't Stop -- for old partners Al Green and Willie Mitchell to collaborate on a secular soul record. And now it's taken only two years for them to follow it up.
The new Everything's OK (Blue Note; Grade: A-), recorded last summer at Mitchell's Royal Studios with mostly the same cast of Hi-connected characters as I Can't Stop (guitarist/collaborator Teenie Hodges a notable absence), doesn't have quite the vintage Hi Records quality as the initial step in Green and Mitchell's reconstituted partnership.
If I Can't Stop sounded like a perfect recreation of one of Green and Mitchell's second-tier '70s albums, Everything's OK is slightly less impressive but slightly more distinctive. There are more blues here, from the chitlin-circuit-ready "Perfect to Me" to the funky "I Can Make Music" (featuring Bobby Rush on harmonica).
The vocals on Everything's OK don't have the ease or subtlety of Green's best '70s work, but the slight strain of the vocal performance is only a minor problem and only then in contrast to what were perhaps the greatest studio albums in soul history. The richness of his mid-range slightly diminished, Green relies more on dynamics that swing low with guttural groans or up high to the soaring improvisations no one else has ever matched. There are many moments on Everything's OK when Green sounds like a man who has come to reclaim the falsetto shriek that inheritor (and future Blue Note label mate?) Prince took to the bank.
One difference between Everything's OK and I Can't Stop is that whereas the earlier record was all original compositions, here Green and Mitchell slip in a ringer that reminds -- and confirms -- the artist's supernatural ability as a cover artist. The deathlessly mawkish "You Are So Beautiful" may be the last thing in the world you want to hear, but a singer of Green's genius can change your mind in a hurry, and his slow-burn performance of the song might be the most compelling on the album. Memories of Joe Cocker fade away as Green merely uses the song as a template for his repertoire of purrs, sighs, groans, shivers, and high-register flourishes.
That pattern continues for much of the album. A lot of the best tracks here ("Be My Baby," for instance) seem barely written as songs. They exist as vehicles for Green and Mitchell to work their aural magic.
But Mitchell's Royal Studios isn't just a place for revisiting the past, as another new local album recorded at the famed studio attests. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Ron Franklin has been cutting some ace records in town over the past few years with a rotating cast of collaborators he's dubbed the Ron Franklin Entertainers. With the eponymous album from The Natural Kicks (Miz Kafrin; Grade: B+) he's now leading a more concrete band, a three-piece where's he's joined by bassist Ilene Markell and Tearjerkers frontman Jack Yarber on drums.
Like so many other Memphis bands past and present, the Natural Kicks play garage-rock with blues and rockabilly roots, but Franklin lends that sound a pop-soul brightness that sets him apart. You can hear it on the compelling mix of originals and covers (where the covers sound like originals and the originals sound like covers) on The Natural Kicks: the Bo Diddley beat that helps the original "Leiden Girl" motorvate along or the way Franklin & Co. turn Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor" into a swinging sock-hop-ready jam.
Franklin's a talented singer/guitarist, but his real gift might be as a conceptualist, and the harder-rocking, real-band setting here dampens the playfulness that made Franklin's previous records so enjoyable. Even in more conventional form, however, he still sounds like no one else on the local scene. •
The Natural Kicks play the Young Avenue Deli Saturday, April 23rd, with Viva Voce.