Booker T. Jones – [Album]

Saturday, 04 June 2011

As fashionably jaded as some music fans and critics are prone to being in the new millennium, some things are undeniable. Some sounds just have that THING which you'll feel from the first beat of the first song; it'll hit you and move you. That sound can compel you to do something – either make you swing with it, make you dance, just bob your head in appreciation or want to get intimate with the one you love – or just the one who's available. Booker T. Jones can make sounds like that. Jones is able to shake listeners out of their fashionable ennui, and he's been doing it now for fifty years – but the downside to having such a storeyed history is that he (just like other musicians with a “legacy”) is in danger of becoming associated with a particular time. Were that to happen, he'd be stuck playing to one crowd of enthusiasts, but not much else. That would get stale pretty quickly, and would likely begin to feel pretty oppressive but, happily, Jones shakes stagnation effortlessly with The Road To Memphis. On his second album in thirty years, Booker T. Brings his brand of soul to a whole new audience with some help from a few other big (but not typically associated) names both old new to help shake things up a bit.

Now, Jones is nobody's fool and he shows that here from the very beginning of Road To Memphis' run-time as he gently works listeners into the mood rather than simply dumping them in to sink or swim. “Walking Papers” is the kind of sweet, vintage soul with which Jones has been striking gold for years but, here, he does only that. No vocals are included on “Walking Papers,” and that's done to show those listening where his heart is before he modifies Gnarls Barkley's “Crazy” to straddle the line between the old and new schools. Again with no vocals but with a Hammond organ holding down the melody, Jones draws a hard line between where he came from and the present day, and thus wordlessly illustrating that soul is soul and there is no temporal boundary in it. It's only after he feels everyone is up to speed in that regard when Jones begins branching in new directions.

…And while he doesn't tread far really, what an exhibition Jones makes of it and what an interesting crew he brings along. The composer/keyboardist will turn heads as he recruits Jim “Yim Yames” James of My Morning Jacket for “Progress” and inspires the singer to give a performance that's the closest to Motown he's ever dared tread but, even better, Jones also makes it seem totally plausible that James could do something like this – before the singer pulls it off. He does the same thing with Lou “So white, he may reflect light” Reed on “The Bronx" by utilizing spare, almost call-and-response-inspired keys to contrast the singer's syncopated anti-melody.

While “The Bronx” and “Progress” aren't the best songs on The Road From Memphis, they (along with “Crazy”) do set the precedent that Booker T. does indeed play well with others and commands the respect of his peers, but is also flexible enough in the nuances of his established sound to accommodate those less acclimated to working in his form. In effect, while “Representing Memphis” is a very strong collaboration (with Sharon Jones of The Dap Kings), it's more immediately forgettable than the songs with Reed and James. By the same token, all of those collaborations put the beauty of Booker T.'s solo compositions (most notably “Down In Memphis,” “Rent Party,” “Harlem House” and “Walking Papers”) into sharp, vibrant relief – thereby really showing what the composer is made of. In that, Booker T. really re-establishes his name and reputation in rock by simply showcasing his craft and showing (in an understated way) how much others are willing to bend in order to work with him. With that in mind, The Road From Memphis can only be called a strong return for Booker T. Jones; he's still got the soul and The Road To Memphis shows how much and how eager others are to line up so they can share in it.



The Road From Memphis
is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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