Album review: The Road from Memphis/Booker T Jones

Posted: January 9, 2012 in Album review: rock

Wildcard instrumental Top 40 hits can be some of the most evocative pop music ever made. Without lyrics to guide us, an instrumental hit evokes – in an almost poetic way – a time, a place, a feeling. Link Wray’s 1958 hit ‘Rumble’ was actually banned from radio in its day, despite having no words – because its menace conjured a gang-fight so dangerously well. It is a sad indictment that an instrumental hit could never exist in the Top 40 of today.

Booker T Jones, with his legendary band the MGs, is probably most famous for two of the greatest Hammond-organ driven hits of all time – 1962’s ‘Green Onions’ and ‘Time is Tight’ from 1969. Both are perfect portraits of the black American experience of their time, as concise and rich as Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On’ or Stevie Wonder’s ‘Living for the City’.

Booker T’s new album, The Road from Memphis, frames his timeless sound in the groove of Philadephia’s The Roots – contemporary masters of retro-soul slack-wristed backbeat and urban funk. Powered (and co-produced) by drummer Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson, the band recreates the original sound-pallette of the MGs for 2011 – now-scratchy-now-chiming guitar, nimble bass and cooler-than-thou drums. The feathery gracenotes that ?uestlove puts before so many of his snare beats are the touch of a true groovemeister.

Opener ‘Walking Papers’ sets the party off – and this is a hell of a party album – in struttin’, butt-shakin’ style. Next is Booker T’s take on Gnarls Barkley’s monster ‘Crazy’ – the treatment reminiscent of the MGs’ dead-groovy versions of Beatles’ songs such as ‘Lady Madonna’ back in the day.

Nice to see some collaborations here that make good sense, rather than the faintly desperate machinations of some of yesterday’s stars to put out releases grafted onto the latest pretty boy or girl. Jim James, leader of those (Creedence Clearwater) revivalists, My Morning Jacket, croons the tune ‘Progress’ with real understanding of the style. The ubiquitous Dap Queen, Sharon Jones teams with The National’s Matt Berninger on the swampy ‘Representing Memphis’ – a love song to the city itself, or maybe the southern-fried side of it.

The most incongruous guest here is punk godfather, Lou Reed. But, after all, cool is cool, and Lou’s patented too-cool talk/sing takes us through the track called (of course) ‘The Bronx’ like no one else.

Then, surprise-surprise, Booker T Jones – the maestro of the wordless instrumental hit – sings! And after ‘Down in Memphis’ we are left wondering why he doesn’t sing more. He takes us on a trip through his beloved Memphis, the journey oiled by one of the best soul ‘love-man’ style vocals this side of Teddy Pendergrass. The man is a triple threat!

Feature track ‘Everything is Everything’ is, oddly, the only one that jars. Here the guitars are more heavy, riffing a rock feel and even the drums lose their feathery licks. The ascending guitar line seems too urgent, the Roots’ groove swamps Booker T’s Hammond and the shady street cool for a moment is lost. On any other album ‘Everything is Everything’ would be a standout; here it sits a little dwarfed by the grown-up grooves on either side of it.

But it doesn’t really matter – by the time you get to this track, the party that is The Road from Memphis will be steaming up the room like all good parties should, the kitchen floor will have become the dancefloor and the neighbours will have rocked in, wondering what that funky soul sound is. As Booker T says in his liners, it’s a ‘real true thing’.

Published June 2011 on www.liveguide.com.au

 

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