This kind of thing needs to happen more often:
Established, middle-aged visionary musicians and producers revitalizing the careers of senior, seemingly past-their-prime performers who contributed oodles to a genre the middle-aged visionary appreciates deeply, thereby introducing them to a new generation of listeners who will then…
At least, that’s the idea. Sometimes it works, like Jack White helming Loretta Lynn’s gorgeous 2004 record Van Lear Rose. Sometimes it doesn’t, like when Rick Rubin gave it an admirable shot with Neil Diamond for 2005’s 12 Songs and folks focused more on its inclusion of Sony’s infamous rootkit software than its music.
Booker T. Jones’ The Road from Memphis greatly surpasses either of those efforts, Jones’ previous 2009 album Potato Hole and most revivalist efforts like it in pop music. That’s in large part to The Roots drummer ?uestlove, the middle-aged visionary in this scenario, and his production oversight of Jones’ signature Memphis soul sound, a sound defined by Jones’ seminal Stax house band Booker T and the MGs. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go to Grooveshark and search “Green Onions”.)
It’s worth noting this and Potato Hole, which won a Grammy as The Road from Memphis likely will, are part of Jones’ Anti- Records deal, a label that specializes in exactly this sort of comeback. It’s not hard to imagine the label or ?uestlove nudging Jones toward making a concerted effort to get a younger, or at least more diverse, audience on board. And it’s great to see Jones step energetically into this new phase in his career and role in pop music.
Of course, not a lot has changed about his musical approach. In fact, nothing has. Just some of the songs. There’s instrumental, heavily grooving covers of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything” (and some old-school jams, too, like lead-off track “Walking Papers”, which cribs the hook from Booker T and MGs-backed “Who’s Making Love” by Johnnie Taylor, a Stax Records crooner). The production is bright and snazzy throughout, free of gritty clicks and pops you might find on old, used Stax vinyl thanks to Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings recording engineer Gabriel Roth, who does a great job here.
Heck, merely speaking as a huge fan of The National, I have to give the album credit just for re-contextualizing Matt Berninger’s deep baritone voice on the song “Representing Memphis”. Sure, Georgia native soul singer Sharon Jones is a natural fit. That’s a given. But Berninger, a Midwestern white guy? It may not seem like his voice would be the best choice but he croons his way into affecting the listener with a Memphis soul, funk and steez.
The record both retools and reminds about soul music, without sacrificing or compromising any of the original charisma of Booker or the voice he has through his B3 organ. Like Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix, Jones’ inner soul permeates through his instrument and his voice is unmistakable. I’m just glad it’s back.
Hey ?uest, can you do The O’Jays next, please?