BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: THE BOOKER T. SET (1969)
1) Love Child; 2) The Horse; 3) Sing A Simple Song; 4) Lady Madonna; 5) This Guy's In Love With You; 6) Mrs. Robinson; 7) Michelle; 8) Light My Fire; 9) You're All I Need To Get By; 10) I've Never Found A Girl; 11) It's Your Thing.
Back to basics again — as if the creative shot-up of Up Tight was just a fluke, here we have the band reverting once more to the tried and true, with another mish-mash of covers, some of which were already fairly dust-covered by 1969 (ʽMichelleʼ? That's, like, so passé!), but most actually reflect a more representative-diagnostic approach to the charts than ever. We have American artists, British artists, funk, soul, R&B, Motown, folk-pop, even a little bit of musical darkness as they tackle The Doors — here is a band that seems to have finally got hip with the times, even if a spirited take on ʽDazed And Confusedʼ wouldn't have hurt to complete the picture.
Few, if any, of these covers raise much excitement, though, and the blame lies primarily with Booker: for some reason — my best guess is that he just didn't really want to do this schtick any more, and was simply obeying the wheel of fate — anyway, for one reason or another his organ playing is really «limp». He never loses the thread, but that's about all he does: the cover of ʽLight My Fireʼ only goes on for four minutes (much shorter than the original LP version), but it seems like an eternity, because the organ just drags and drags and drags, repeating the same verse-chorus melody of the song several times in a row with only minor variations, in a very mechanistic manner and at a very low volume level. One wonders why they have not actually retitled the song ʽFuneral Pyreʼ.
Pretty much the same impressions accompany everything else. Yes, the main melodies of ʽMrs. Robinsonʼ, ʽMichelleʼ, and ʽLady Madonnaʼ are catchy, emotional, nerve-hitting nuggets that make you experience sorrow, tenderness, and amusement even in these incarnations — never let it be said that Booker T. does not instinctively feel which chords are the most important in capturing a song's heart and soul. But everything is played so low-key, so «lethargically», that you have no idea what's going on, really. Is it just a sign that they don't really care? Is it an intellectual statement — «these songs are flashy, but we can make them meditative»? Is it just a technical failure? Or are the songs just so good that it is literally impossible for an instrumental R&B band to offer an engaging instrumental take on them, no matter how hard they try?
The best track is ʽThe Horseʼ, a cover of the solitary instrumental hit by Cliff Nobles & Co. in which the heraldic horns that originally made the song into what it was are substituted for the organ. With a much tighter rhythm section, a galloping tempo, and even a rare bass solo from Duck Dunn, it is one of the few tracks on the album that does not come across as soporific. But when they try to break into funk (Sly Stone's ʽSing A Simple Songʼ), the results are even less promising than with the white guy songs: Booker T. & The M.G.'s are not a funk band, they are a calm, calculating, oh-so-mid-tempo blues-rock / R&B team, and they never let excitement get too much to their heads. At best, they can milk the funk approach for a little musical humor (ʽIt's Your Thingʼ), but that's about it.
In the end, The Booker T. Set gets by simply because of its strong selection of source material: with all these classic songs and all these professional and deep-feeling musicians, and being recorded in an era when actual playing chops still mattered, the record could not be downright «bad» even if they sleepwalked through it (which they more or less did). It's just that the performances instinctively remind me of the not-yet-born Average White Band, and it is a rather uncanny comparison when you have the Above-Average Black & White Band on the other end of the scale. And oh yes, once again Steve Cropper is dreadfully underused throughout. I mean, couldn't they have at least given him a solo spot on ʽLight My Fireʼ? Surely he could have shown Robby Krieger a trick or two of his own.