Liam is one of those artists whose work you know without knowing his name. He’s worked on records from Jeff Tweedy, Steve Gunn, Chance The Rapper, and Daniel Johnston, but this marks the first time that his name appears above the fold. The album is dipped in a ‘70s songwriter sheen, immaculately put together and floating in a kind of lonesome haze. His resume speaks to Liam’s knowledge of well constructed records, and when I’d reached out to see if Liam had a pick for the Hidden Gems series, his was more than just an overlooked classic. He goes deep on a true gem of ‘70s soul that often gets lost among the artists’ more celebrated fare. Check out Liam’s take on an Al Green disco-dipped treasure.
“I first heard Belle by Al Green while mopping the floors of Hungry Brain,” recalls Kazar. “I spent three years working as a bartender/custodian at the Northside Chicago bar and had some of my most important musical moments in the windowless dive while holding a push-broom some time between 10am and noon. The curation and maintenance of the jukebox is the most fiercely discussed issue within the staff and ownership of Hungry Brain. Draft beer? We’ll get there. But the jukebox is cutting off songs and the guy needs to come fix it right now! The Brain’s jukebox turned me on to so much great music: Ray Charles’ That Lucky Old Sun, Sun Ra’s Lanquidity, Fleetwood Mac’s Think About Me, to name a few. But none sent me down the life-altering spiral that was when I went home and checked out the record that had that great Al Green tune.”
“The Belle Album gives us an Al Green struggling to figure out the next chapter of his life,” muses Liam. “Released in late 1977, just barely within the years-long shadow of The Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever, Green puts out a deconstructed, sort of off-the-cuff disco record about…Jesus. He seems truly conflicted about his role as a modern-day crooner and he spends the entire record talking about it — with one foot still in his lover’s door. I adore this conflict and it’s what has kept this record a constant in my life for about five years. What Sly Stone lays out in the relationship of “If You Want Me To Stay,” easily one of the top ten funkiest tracks of all time, Al Green expands, and brings a third party into the conversation. Where Sly suggests the classic “it’s not you, it’s me,” with a twist of “so, deal with it,” Al Green says, “it’s not you, it’s Him.” That simple wrench in the gears sits on top of a flawless collection of quickly-constructed-in-the-studio backing tracks with as deep a pocket as there ever was. It’s a fascinating record from one of America’s finest songwriters and folks are sleeping on it.”
“The record is dry. Not much reverb or delay to be found (that my non-engineer ears can detect) and it pulls you right into the room with them. Green usually has two vocals going but I wouldn’t call it a double (industry speak for recording the same thing twice to make it sound full). Sounds like one vocal is in the room with the band and the other is done later to either help out the original or just offer little whispers to the audience. The center of the record is the bass, drums, and acoustic guitar (played by Green himself). I got obsessed with that acoustic guitar sound. I love how the notes pop out and then just die. You’re listening to the strings, not the wood, a sound not much appreciated by myself most of the time, but it really works here. Green takes solos, creates hooks that become horn lines, and plays rhythm guitar that’s sometimes closer to a percussion part than helping the harmony. The typical Hollywood strings of his earlier records are ditched for a single synthesizer sound that makes its way across the whole record. Mostly playing single notes, there is a naïveté to the synth that brings an often under-appreciated part of record-making: silliness. I love it!”
This record deserves a listen and then another one. I think history consistently glosses over the Black writer and instead pours praise on the Black artist for their raw talent. Genius in songwriting seems to be reserved for white people, mostly men. Fuck that. There are many genius Black songwriters and Al Green is certainly one of them. Listen to The Belle Album and you’ll hear a genius at work.”
This is another one of those reasons I love this feature. While I’m, naturally, familiar with Green, this is certainly one the my blind spots in his catalog. Thankfully its still in print, and has been reissued by Fat Possum when they dug through his output a few years back. Liam’s spot on with this recommendation and it would do you well to pair this with his own Due North, which was out last month from Woodsist.
Support the artist. Buy it HERE.