Categories
Music Reviews

Albert King

Albert King

Born Under a Bad Sign

Stax

To a blues fan, the beginning of the title cut to Albert King’s 1967 masterpiece Born Under a Bad Sign, with the low-down thump of Donald “Duck” Dunn’s bass anchoring the swell of the Memphis Horns (Wayne Jackson, Andrew Love, and Joe Arnold) is enough to bring a smile to the face. Steve Cropper’s Telecaster begins the main riff — hanging a bit back of Al Jackson’s drums, completely in the groove — and then King’s vocals start (Born under a bad sign / Been down since I began to crawl), and smiles turn to grins.

Born Under a Bad Sign is one of the classic electric blues albums by anyone, anywhere, and it propelled Albert King from juke joints to the stage of the Fillmore. Recorded in Memphis with Booker T. & the MG’s with Isaac Hayes playing piano, it is a textbook on blues guitar playing. Just ask Eric Clapton, who starting performing “Bad Sign” with Cream and left King’s solos largely intact. The title cut and “Crosscut Saw” became standards in the genre, and every song on the album is a perfect meshing of that southern soul snap of Stax and the MG’s with King’s gruff vocals and stinging guitar.

The reissue adds five cuts of alternate takes and an untitled instrumental, but the original eleven cuts are so staggeringly good it almost seems a sacrilege to tinker with it. The remastered CD adds definition to the sound — “Lucy,” King’s upside-down Gibson sounds punchy and the MG’s sound even more “in the pocket” then you recall. Listening to it on headphones allows you to more fully appreciate how the horns back up the rhythm section, or how the Cropper plays all those greasy runs backing up King (who, like B.B. King generally only played lead on his records).

The record has it all, from the grinding swagger of the title cut, the up-tempo, rumbling force of “The Hunter,” to slow blues such as “As the Years Go Passing by” and “The Very Thought of You,” and every cut is letter-perfect Memphis soul/blues, by one of the masters of the field. Take a spin of Born Under a Bad Sign and hear for yourself. If by album’s end you aren’t grinning, then brother, you ain’t just got the blues-,you don’t have a soul.

Concord Music: concordmusicgroup.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Booker T. & the MGs

Booker T. & the MGs

Green Onions

Stax Records

Flukes are cool. Rock ‘n roll flukes are even better. In the case of Booker T. & the MGs, their seemingly sudden success had quite a back story. Keyboardist Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Crooper, bassist Lewie Steinberg, and drummer Al Jackson, Jr. were the house band for Stax Records and played on 95% of their recordings through 1969. The foursome backed soul luminaries like Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, and Wilson Picket, among others. The details of the actual start of Booker T. & the MGs (Memphis Group) are hazy, but the essence is that the four musicians were jamming one afternoon at Stax, and with material the 17-year-old Booker T. Jones had been working on, banged out “Behave Yourself” and “Green Onions.”

“Green Onions” became the title track of one of, if not the, greatest soul and R&B instrumental albums of all time. Not surprisingly, “Green Onions” rocketed to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1962. So, it’s fitting that Stax released a 50th anniversary reissue of Green Onions, complete with 24-bit remastering and two live bonus tracks (long, feisty versions of “Green Onions” and “Can’t Sit Down”) recorded at the 5/4 Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1965. The 50th anniversary reissue coincides with the Library of Congress’ decision to add “Green Onions” for permanent preservation to the National Recording Registry.

Booker T. & the MGs’ debut album features three original tracks (“Green Onions,” “Mo’ Onions,” “Behave Yourself”) and nine assorted covers. “Mo’ Onions” is totally fresh, despite being the same length and using the same chords (albeit in a different order) as the title track. The slow, 12-bar blues of “Behave Yourself” sits smack in the middle of Green Onions. Right before that track is the band’s short and sweet version of “Twist and Shout,” released a year before the Beatles included the song on their 1963 debut Please Please Me. Booker T. & the MGs also covered two Ray Charles songs: a jauntier “I Got a Woman” and the slow, spry “Lonely Avenue.” In addition, they successfully tackled Smokey Robinson’s “One Who Really Loves You” and Jackie Wilson’s “A Woman, a Lover, a Friend.” The sneaky “Comin’ Home Baby” ends Green Onions with a slow whisper that makes you want to listen to the nearly 35 minutes of the entire album again.

Stax: concordmusicgroup.com/labels/Stax

Categories
Music Reviews

Rufus Thomas

Rufus Thomas

Do The Funky Chicken

Stax

We ain’t got no hippies down in Mississippi/ But we’re funky just the same ~ “Funky Mississippi” by Rufus Thomas.

Nobody is gonna sue Rufus Thomas for false advertising. I doubt Thomas could walk to the mailbox and not make it funky. Take a listen to his first hit, “Walking the Dog” from Stax in 1963. Funky. With its low-down guitar atop a New Orleans beat, it defined funkiness, and Thomas never looked back, racking up hit after dance-floor filling hit. By the time of Do the Funky Chicken in 1968, Thomas was considered “old school” at Stax. But you can’t tell it from the grooves. This is primal funk. From the relentless beat to the commanding vocals, Thomas wasn’t growing old gracefully. Hell, he makes “Old McDonald Had a Farm” sound like James Brown, and his version of “Hound Dog” — called “Bear Cat” — is pure sex, leaving Elvis in the dust.

Do the Funky Chicken launched the second wave of Rufus Thomas’s career and got him back on the charts. This expanded edition features eight extra cuts recorded at the same time with Booker T. & the MG’s backing him up. Can’t get much funkier than that. Those listeners who spend all their free time cratedigging to find the gems that make you “move your rump” will do well to put this in the rotation. Because when Rufus Thomas tells you to dance the Funky Chicken, or the “Itch and Scratch,” it ain’t a suggestion. It’s a funkin’ order!

Concord: www.concordmusicgroup.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere

Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere

Midnight Flyer

Stax Records

I was excited to get this collaborative disc between these two great Stax players, but was disappointed after giving it a spin. Steve Cropper is one of those top-notch studio musicians who appears on just about everything and occasionally even gets a liner credit. You may remember him playing himself in the 1980s “The Blues Brothers” movie, and he’s played on enough soundtracks and albums to befuddle any music historian. Cavaliere sang for “The Rascals” and turned out half a dozen hits. Together these guys produce some brilliant music, but this disc feels like it was laid down in the dark days of disco and evokes a trite lounge act without a trace of irony.

Opening track “You Give Me All I Need” is a multi-layered love song with a vaguely Latin touch, Motown backup vocals, and a slightly jazzy bass creating a smooth ’70s feel. It’s nice and romantic, but I’ve heard this same sound every time I’ve ordered a Pina Colada. Title cut “Midnight Flyer” has the same dated sound, it’s bouncy and the guitar solo is short and sweet, but the male back up chorus somehow feels wrong. Later we check in with “Chance with Me,” which plays on a rhyming couple to “dance with me.” Guitar notes are plump and well-rounded, and it’s not a bad song, but it’s not a great one either. The subsequent “Move the House” feels acoustically identical, even though it plods through one of those “Everybody dance!” rallying cries. Auto-tune sneaks in like a kid brother trying to steal a beer and all you can do is smile gently. I hate to say it, but “Midnight Flyer” takes quality musicians and great arrangements, and applies it to ineffective song writing.

Felix Cavaliere: www.felixcavaliere.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere

Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere

Midnight Flyer

Stax

I was excited to get this collaborative disc between these two great Stax players, and was disappointed after giving it a spin. Steve Cropper is one of those top-notch studio musicians who appear on just about everything and occasionally even get a liner credit. You may remember him playing himself in 1980’s The Blues Brothers movie, and he’s played on enough soundtracks and albums to befuddle any music historian. Cavaliere sang for The Rascals and turned out half a dozen hits. Together these guys produce some brilliant music, but this disc feels like it was laid down in the dark days of disco and evokes a trite lounge act without a trace of irony.

Opening track “You Give Me All I Need” is a multilayered love song with a vaguely Latin touch, Motown backup vocals and a slightly jazzy bass create a smooth ’70s feel. It’s nice and romantic, but I’ve heard this same sound every time I’ve ordered a piña colada. Title cut “Midnight Flyer” has the same dated sound; it’s bouncy and the guitar solo is short and sweet but the male back up chorus somehow feels wrong. Later we check in with “Chance with Me” which plays on a rhyming couple to “dance with me.” Guitar notes are plump and well rounded and it’s not a bad song, but it’s not a great one either. The subsequent “Move the House” feels acoustically identical, even though it plods through one of those “everybody dance!” rallying cries. Auto-Tune sneaks in like a kid brother trying to steal a beer and all you can do is smile gently. I hate to say it, but Midnight Flyer takes quality musicians and great arrangements and applies it to ineffective songwriting.

Felix Cavaliere: www.felixcavaliere.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Booker T.

Booker T.

Potato Hole

ANTI-Records

The longtime architect of the STAX sound returns with his first solo album in 20 years. Booker T’s funky organ is backed by Neil Young and the Drive-By Truckers for an unforgettable jam session. Booker T Jones made his name as the bandleader for The MGs, the house band for STAX records. Unlike the unsung Funk Brothers of Motown fame, Booker T and The MGs released their own music as well. After they parted ways, Jones released several solo albums and then had an illustrious career as a producer for the likes of Neil Young and Bill Withers. For any one of those accomplishments, his place in music history is assured. No one would blame him if he decided to live in the past and consistently re-release new re-mastered editions of “Green Onions” for his fans. Instead, Potato Hole is a lively trip across several musical genres, paying tribute to the past, but continually moving forward.

While he is not playing with the MGs on this album, Booker T is not without friends. Neil Young’s guitar is in full growl mode during the heavy opening track, “Pound it Out.” He tunes it down just a bit for the rest of the album, so that he doesn’t overshadow the other players, but his distinctive style is always present. The accompanying rhythm work by The Drive-By Truckers — dual guitars, bass, and drums — provides a solid foundation from which Booker T’s organ soars. For an instrumental album, his organ takes on the role of lead vocalist, consistently at the forefront and dripping with emotion, whether he is playing one of his own compositions or covering a song by one of his friends — Outkast (“Hey Ya”), Tom Waits (“Get Behind the Mule”), and The Drive-By Truckers (“Space City”).

The first time I listen to an instrumental album, I am usually able to identify the context in my life it fits best — music to work by, background music for an RPG session, driving music, etc. Potato Hole has thus far defied such easy classification. As soon as I think it fits into one niche, the track changes and the mood changes with it, from the hard rock of “Pound it Out,” through the modern R&B feel of “She Breaks,” into the jazzy “Warped Sister.” Not all of the tracks are instant classics. A couple fail to really stand out from the crowd, but there are no bad songs in the bunch. The phrase “musical odyssey” is overused, I think, but Booker T definitely takes us on a funky, groovy trip with this album.

Booker T: www.bookert.com

Categories
Music Reviews

Yo La Tengo

Yo La Tengo

Popular Songs

Matador Records

Hoboken hipster heroes Yo La Tengo titled their 14th album Popular Songs. That can be seen as an ironic come-on straight from the dog-eared hipster handbook but, more likely, the 12 songs are the trio’s version of popular.

The opening track, “Here to Fall” swells and shrinks in all the right places with a gorgeous string arrangement. Singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan sets the tone with his warm yet detached voice that carries most of Popular Songs. Singer-drummer Georgia Hubley harmonizes with her husband on a handful of songs and carries a few tracks in her best Nicoesque whisper.

Three middle songs pay homage to great ’60s music. “Periodically Double or Triple” invokes soulful keyboard scales that would make Booker T & the MGs proud. Hell, there’s even a 15-second interlude of the grooviest elevator music you could hope to hear. Yo La Tengo keeps it modern with the sly lyric, “Judge Judy tell me if I’m wrong.” The intro to “If It’s True” is classic Motown in the same vein as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” “I’m on My Way” begins with similar chords as the Velvet Underground’s gentle anthem “Pale Blue Eyes.” Kaplan even winks at Lou Reed by starting the track singing, “Sun shines through the window/ there’s nothing I can do/ I tried to be brooding and dark/ but it all fell through.”

While you’re enveloped in the warm, mellow music and lyrical whimsy that Belle and Sebastian has based its career on, Yo La Tengo ends Popular Songs with three tracks that test your stamina — by totaling over a half-hour in length. And, really, what Yo La Tengo album from the 2000s would be complete without a 10-minute-plus final song? Muted guitar chords accompany majestic keyboards and strings on “More Stars Than There are in Heaven.” Kaplan and Hubley pepper the song with the lyrics “We’ll walk hand in hand.” Kaplan’s voice enters “The Fireside” after eight minutes and stays with the gurgling guitar for only 50-some seconds before leaving. The final track “And the Glitter is Gone” is a 16-minute freakout of controlled chaos and only James McNew’s bass line threading the entire thing together.

Yo La Tengo: www.yolatengo.com

Categories
Music Reviews

RZA and Keb Darge

RZA and Keb Darge

Kings of Funk

BBE

BBE is once again proving that they are one of the most intriguing and exciting hip-hop labels in operation today. After string after string of critically-acclaimed albums, these Brits still take nothing for granted and have now launched the incredibly compelling Kings of… series. Following the double-disc compilation Kings of Disco by Joey Negro and Dmitri from Paris, they now bring together RZA and deep funkster Keb Darge for this second tribute in the series.

As opposed to a Greatest Hits series, this is more like Six Degrees’ old Under the Influence line. Kings of Funk is a tribute to the crate digger in all of us. RZA’s disc is much more of a chill session and definitely the more recognizable of the discs. Lynn Collins, Bobbi Humphrey, Sly and Booker T. and the MGs are on this one. Ken Boothe’s “It’s Because I’m Black” is a reggae gem, Boothe’s plaintive voice haunting long after the gritty track’s finished. And Harlem Underground’s version of “Ain’t No Sunshine” is so RZA it must’ve appeared on 36 Chambers.

Keb Darge’s compilation, however, is more for the obscure dance freak. It’s a hipster DJ’s dream. There are crypto-juke joint stomps by Sharon Jones and Quantic. MFSB’s “Family Affair” is pure adrenaline funk. And cuts by Brand New, Mighty Generation and Skying High will definitely get you moving.

The Kings of Funk has something for every dedicated funkateer and old soul fan. Whether chilling or dancing, this is a compilation you’ll quickly grow to appreciate. Once again, BBE must be commended for a job well done.

BBE: www.bbemusic.com

Categories
Music Reviews

The Neville Brothers

The Neville Brothers

Walkin’ in the Shadow of Life

Back Porch Records/Neville Nation Records

Carlos Santana said of his Supernatural CD, “I wanted to connect the molecules and the light.” What he meant was that he wanted to reach beyond his traditional fan base, and he most certainly succeeded.

Whether it’s a purposeful attempt to pique the interests of new fans or a natural progression, The Nevilles are poised to do the same thing. The next generation of Nevilles coming fully into the fold brings a fresher approach, and one of the best studio albums since their Daniel Lanois-produced Yellow Moon.

Lanois understood the Neville vibe better than other producers who have tried their hand with them. But nobody understands the Nevilles better than they do themselves. This album doesn’t seem to be about purposely reaching the masses. It feels more soulful and natural than anything they’ve put to tape in years. It sounds more like their collective personal tales and observations. It sounds more like one voice.

The Nevilles will always have a place in my heart, but I’m actually excited about this band again. Back in the ’80s, there was some degree of championing the underdog in my support. This time it’s different.

The Neville Brothers: www.nevilles.com

Categories
Music Reviews

The Mooney Suzuki

The Mooney Suzuki

Alive & Amplified

Columbia

This is another one of those ’70s psychadelic/soul/rock throwback records that are so in vogue these days. The difference, though, is that The Mooney Suzuki appear to pull off these retro-afro-glam rock stylings quite easily. Alive & Amplified doesn’t sound like an imitation, it sounds authentic.

Even the cover art looks legit. With its 3 headed topless black woman with flowers for hair and swirly background landscape, it could have easily hung at the Filmore back in the day, advertising the Jimi Hendrix Experience, or Sly and the Family Stone, or Janis Joplin. Instead it advertises 4 white guys from New York whose music could be the missing link between Booker T & The MG’s and The Who, Sam & Dave and KISS, The New York Dolls and Lenny Kravitz.

The music is full of soul and sex, and celebrates the free love times of the ’70s — a time when rockstars were encouraged to wear skintight pants and break all sorts of laws in their hotel rooms. The themes of Alive and Amplified are simple: get high and get it on. Most of the songs are about sex, guitars and naked ladies. Check out some sample lyrics:

From opening track, “Primitive Condition”: “Let’s get in a primitive position/We’re just fancy animals with hands/And animal glands.”

“Shakin’ when I wake up/Keep a heavin’ just to breathe/Chubby cherub up above me/Heathen fiend asleep beneath” – from “Shake That Bush Again.”

“Put ’em in then ya pull ’em out/Do the loose ‘n’ juicy/Shake it all about” – from “Hot Sugar”

And my personal favorite, from “Messin’ in the Dressin’ Room”: “(woman) Now that we’re alone/Wouldn’t you like to slip into something more…comfortable? (man) Like you!?! (woman) uhhh…”

In an age of political correctness, hearing a band that isn’t too self-conscious to write words that could’ve been penned by KISS is oddly refreshing. The Mooney Suzuki are of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll school of music. Sometimes this produces great rock music (“Primitive Condition,” “Legal High,” “Shake That Bush Again”), other times it comes off sounding flat (“Somtimes Somethin'”). This is by no means a perfect record, but it is fun. It’s a party album. Invite over some friends, indulge in your particular poison and crank Alive & Amplified up for ambience.

The Mooney Suzuki: www.themooneysuzuki.com