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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Soul Limbo

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: SOUL LIMBO (1968)

1) Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy; 2) La La Means I Love You; 3) Hang 'Em High; 4) Willow Weep For Me; 5) Over Easy; 6) Soul Limbo; 7) Eleanor Rigby; 8) Heads Or Tails; 9) (Sweet, Sweet Baby) Since You've Been Gone; 10) Born Under A Bad Sign; 11) Foxy Lady.

I have no idea if this was in any way connected with the separation of the Stax label from Atlantic Records, but Soul Limbo is the first record in ages on which Booker T. & The M.G.'s show at least a few signs of wanting to «keep up with the times», as they cover such «daring» material as ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ (already two years old at the time, but certainly more «relevant» than any song called ʽLa La Means I Love Youʼ) and Jimi's ʽFoxy Ladyʼ (supposedly, that's one out there on the front cover, as the four M.G.'s calculate various competitive scenarios while staring at her assets). Although Soul Limbo is still uneven and its existence not completely justified, there is some life here, and some justification for the continuing presence of Booker T. Jones in a world where the electric organ as a musical instrument would soon rather be associated with white progressive rock artists than black soulsters and R&B'ers.

First and foremost, I really like this ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ cover — at the very least, it makes much more sense than Aretha's version, which left little of the original and replaced it with something rather incomprehensible. Here, the strings are replaced with a steady beat, and the vocal part is being played on an organ heavily loaded with a tremolo effect, so that it sounds suitably psyche­delic and weepy at the same time, adding a pinch of deep dark mystery to what used to be a de­vastatingly sad, but ultimately «light» arrangement. Throw in some variations on the basic theme, a few technically challenging flourishes, and you get an adventurous and challenging homage to a great composition that re-channels, rather than loses, the spirit of the original.

It does not work nearly as well with ʽFoxy Ladyʼ, and on the whole, surprising as it may seem, Booker T. does a better job with the Beatles than with Jimi — most likely because the Beatles are not a band oriented at any single instrument, and while hearing Booker T.'s organ play the role of Paul McCartney's pipes is amusing, listening to him imitating Hendrix's guitar is rather a disap­pointment; even more of a disappointment is hearing Steve Cropper actually play a guitar on that track — with all due respect to Cropper, he ain't Jimi, nor does he have any non-Jimi musical vision that would be comparable in scope. Still, it is curious to see them try, and it may be in­struc­tive to see how close in texture their result is to the preceding ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ — just so we all remember how deeply himself Jimi was rooted in the blues.

There are a few other highlights here as well, equally unpredictable — for instance, the spaghetti-western theme from the Clint Eastwood movie ʽHang 'Em Highʼ where Booker T. does an admi­rable job transferring the theme's pseudo-Morricone-like «heroic» orchestral hook onto the organ, so much so that I think I like the band's version more; or Aretha's ʽSince You've Been Goneʼ, where the organ almost jumps out of its case to recreate or replace all the nuances and over­tones of the human (or, more correctly, the superhuman — we're talking Aretha here) voice. On the other hand, the band's originals suffer in comparison: the title track is a light-headed Caribbean romp with too much percussion and too little depth, and ʽOver Easyʼ is an overlong jazzy jam where our main hero fussily fumbles on the piano without much focus.

Ultimately I would probably select ʽHang 'Em Highʼ, ʽEleanor Rigbyʼ and possibly ʽSince You've Been Goneʼ as honorable mentions, well fit for inclusion on any representative anthology, and disregard the rest of the tracks — admitting, at the same time, that with Soul Limbo, our Silent Heroes of the Golden Age of R&B make a brave, if not wholly successful, attempt to prolong that Golden Age by intelligently adapting to changing fashions.

8 comments:

  1. Hey George, do you have any plans in the future to review music by R. Stevie Moore, Daniel Johnston, Guided by Voices, or Half Japanese?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I guess no, but two closely related artists to Booker T. & The M.G.'s will be soon.

      Hint: Their names begin with Ca.

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    3. I meant in the distant future. In the meantime, I am glad the blog is finally starting to move on from the letter B.

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    4. I'd say there's still the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and possibly Burzum before the Great Age of C commences.

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    5. Most likely Bruce Springsteen, also.

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  2. I think the change in contemporary approach coincided with Stax being bought out by a larger company. They wanted a larger back catalog to raise the value.

    Also, this was among the first records to make the Easy Listening charts, and I can't decide if that speaks well of EL in the early days or poorly of the MGs stylistic direction. Still, when your competition is Percy Faith, Herb Alpert, and Perry Como, it truly is Easy to stand out.

    And that cover shot is CREEPY. Can't decide if it's a strip tease or voyeurism. Give me the hip huggers and generic party snapshots any day.

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    1. I think Easily Listening was just less crappy, at least in 1968 – Stevie Wonder's instrumental cover of "Alfie" did make the EL Top 20, though incidentally, it's the three originals and the co-write with his producer that could actually give EL a good name. And Herb Alpert isn't too bad. He was pretty "experimental" for the genre, what with covers of surf rock and traditional Greek dance music

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