Booker T. Jones – The Road From Memphis

January 01, 1970

(Anti-)

 

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It’s one thing to relaunch your career as a soul
instrumental icon by getting the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young to back you
up; it’s quite another to work with the versatile and imaginative core of the
Roots for a follow-up that firmly establishes Booker T. Jones as a carrier of
the traditions he started 50 years ago while sounding entirely fresh and of the
present.

 

Let’s face it, Potato
Hole
was a fun romp that showcased Jones’ chops in a raunchier setting than
we might have expected from him, but the cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya” aside,
it’s hard to recall much of the record two years down the line. For The Road From Memphis, the grooves are
tighter, the hooks are sharper, and the four vocal tracks provide the necessary
change of pace to add focus to the seven instrumentals.

 

Despite lending his namesake to Booker T. & the MG’s,
Jones was one of four equals in that classic Stax band of the 60s. Whether
churning out the instrumental hits like “Green Onions” and “Time Is Tight,” or
backing up (and sometimes co-writing for) the many vocal gems to come out of
that McLemore Avenue
studio, Jones made his mark as a consummate team player. Working with drummer
?uestlove, guitarist Captain Kirk, and bassist Owen Biddle of the Roots, Jones
establishes  clear leadership. The rhythm
section is here to allow the Hammond B-3 organ to shine, and that’s exactly
what happens.

 

The only serious rivals to Booker T. & the MG’s as
instrumental masters back in the day were the Meters from down in New Orleans. ?uestlove is
clearly channeling a lot more of Zigaboo Modeliste’s exhaustive syncopation
than the cool, in-the-pocket minimalism of Al Jackson, Jr. This gives Jones a
chance to see what he can do with his organ in a different setting; it turns
out he fits neatly into this kind of funk, as well.

 

As “Hey Ya” won so much attention last time, it’s not
surprising to hear Jones turn to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” as an attempt to grab
the same audience. While this cover bounces along nicely, it’s actually almost
rote – it might have been more audacious, not to mention more current, to
tackle Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You.” On the other hand, a cover of Lauryn Hill’s classic
“Everything Is Everything” scorches, as Jones and bandmates carry the simple
yet soaring melody up the steps of the exhilarating chord changes.

 

The vocal cuts are a mixed bag. Jim James (aka “Yim Yames”)
of My Morning Jacket co-wrote “Progress” with Jones, and if it had been sung by
somebody with a more fluidly soulful vocal style, it might have been an album
highlight. Lou Reed has absolutely no business attempting to credibly
speak/sing the word “flava” on “The Bronx,” an otherwise delightfully jazzy
tone poem that at least fits the popular image of that neck of the woods. On
the other hand, Jones acquits himself very well with a rare vocal turn on “Down
In Memphis,” while Sharon Jones (naturally) and Matt Berninger of the National
(surprisingly) provide a terrific duet on the intricately syncopated
“Representing Memphis.”

 

Jones and the band swing hard on “Walking Papers,” dance
joyfully on “Rent Party,” conjure up harsher tones on “The Vamp,” and burn on
“Harlem House” and “The Hive.” Of course, the Roots are always busy with a
million projects, not to mention a nightly TV gig, but as usual, they create
the desire to hear more work with the artist they back up. Maybe Jones will get
the chance to invite them back into the studio next time, or maybe Jones is
more interested right now in exploring new territory every time. We’ll find out
whenever the next chapter appears in this career revival.

 

DOWNLOAD: “Representing
Memphis,” “Everything Is Everything,” “Harlem House.” 
STEVE PICK

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