BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: SOUL DRESSING (1965)
1) Soul Dressing; 2) Tic-Tac-Toe; 3) Big Train; 4) Jellybread; 5) Aw' Mercy; 6) Outrage; 7) Night Owl Walk; 8) Chinese Checkers; 9) Home Grown; 10) Mercy Mercy; 11) Plum Nellie; 12) Can't Be Still.
Unlike Green Onions, this one does not seriously pretend to be a genuine, much less «conceptual» LP — like so many others, it largely consists of a string of singles recorded by the band from 1963 to 1965, in the process of which they eventually lost original bass player Lewie Steinberg and replaced him with Donald ʽDuckʼ Dunn, thus completing the «classic» Stax lineup, responsible for so much of that mid-to-late 1960s Atlantic greatness. On the other hand, also unlike Green Onions, Soul Dressing largely consists of original compositions — with the exception of Don Covay's ʽMercy Mercyʼ, all the songs are now credited to the band members.
The question of originality does not exactly disappear, since many of the compositions sound like variations on all too familiar themes (ʽBig Trainʼ = Howlin' Wolf's ʽLittle Babyʼ, to name but one), including some of their own (ʽJellybreadʼ, for instance, recycles the main organ groove of ʽGreen Onionsʼ once too many), but in any case, this is not a very relevant issue for the boys, whose goal was never to push forward musical boundaries in blinding flashes of inspiration, but to make professional, reliable, cool-sounding mini-soundtracks to stimulate the body without insulting the mind. To that end, Soul Dressing is just the right kind of dressing, as would be many of its follow-ups.
And it's not as if there weren't lots of cute minor touches that keep reminding us — these guys had, on the average, one notch more of class than most competition. There's the tricky, confusing percussion groove on ʽTic-Tac-Toeʼ, for instance, stuck somewhere in between regular rock'n'roll and syncopated funk — and they also experiment with fade-outs, bringing the tune back for an extra thirty seconds out of nowhere even as you think it was over all too quickly. There's ʽChinese Checkersʼ, whose main organ/guitar riff builds on the already mentioned ʽMercy Mercyʼ, but competes for attention with Hugh Masekela-style horns, and plays on the title by having somebody cue Booker T. for his electric piano solo with a juicy "your move!"
And then there's ʽPlum Nellieʼ, where they finally succeed in coming up with something just as gritty and threatening as ʽGreen Onionsʼ, even if this time they have to abandon «minimalism» and add a brash brass part to the recording, as well as have Steve Cropper intersperse his concise riffage with more complex soloing techniques (trills, ʽMisirlouʼ-style surf guitar passages, etc. — no feedback, though: for all their experimentation, these guys were «clean» as a whistle). A track as sharp and crisp as that could not be forgotten, and, in fact, the Small Faces later covered it, probably out of reluctance to be good lads and play the usual ʽGreen Onionsʼ like everybody else. Now those guys threw in quite a bit of juicy feedback, though — throwing out the horns and probably wrecking a complete drum kit in the process. Not sure if Booker T. would have appreciated that. Too much ruckus and chaos.
Although some of the tracks could probably be labelled as «filler» if we were in the mood for labelling, the M.G.'s in their prime were always a delight to hear, and even if the basic grooves are often similar, neither Booker T. nor Steve Cropper ever play the same solo twice; also, proceedings are kept at a certain level of diversity, alternating between strict blues, poppier blues, gospellier blues (by the way, on a random note — Ray Manzarek's organ solo on ʽLight My Fireʼ owes quite a bit to ʽSoul Dressingʼ, doesn't it?), and midnight jazz (ʽNight Owl Walkʼ, which is all soft and hushed and premonition-filled, but just as you succeed in getting lulled, they pull you out with a stop-and-start punchline — the classic sense-baiter). All the goals here being fairly humble, and all of them being met with the usual touch of class, I see no reason not to give Soul Dressing a proper thumbs up rating. At the very least, you simply won't be getting this kind of guitar and organ solos on the absolute majority of vocal R&B records of that time — reason enough to be interested in the M.G.'s on their own terms.