BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: MELTING POT (1971)
1) Melting Pot; 2) Back Home; 3) Chicken Pox; 4) Fuquawi; 5) Kinda Easy Like; 6) Hi Ride; 7) L.A. Jazz Song; 8) Sunny Monday.
For those who doubted if Booker T. & The M.G.'s could make a credible and efficient transition to the sound of the Seventies — here is your answer. The issue is not whether Melting Pot is or is not the band's «best album», as is often claimed. The issue is that, with those new funky sounds on the rise, the Seventies gave us the last wave of great Afro-American instrumental music, before electronics and sampling swooped it all away, and as it often happens in between waves, not everybody riding one could easily hop on to the next one. The M.G.'s could — even if one could say, in light of the consequences, that the leap ultimately broke their back.
Following McLemore Avenue, the band grew dissatisfied with the conservatism of Stax and relocated to New York City in order to record their next album — where, as Booker T. was convinced, things were really happening at the time. Keeping in mind that Soul Dressing was really a collection of scattered singles, and that Up Tight was really a movie soundtrack, Melting Pot may claim the distinction of being the really first M.G.'s album to be conceived as an album, with all original compositions — not to mention that two of the compositions go over eight minutes, which was perfectly alright for an autonomous, self-sufficient funk outfit, but certainly out of the ordinary for a band that used to make a living by covering hit singles of the day.
The difference is immediately felt in the title track, opening with a bona fide funk groove — syncopated bass, scratch guitar, the works — and yet, at the heart of the track we still find the same old melodicity, characteristic of Booker T., as he and Cropper lay on several melodic solos. Steve's part is quite traditionally bluesy, Booker T.'s is traditionally jazzy, but the funky groove provokes them into action, so the playing is a little more «red hot» than usual. The usual «grimness» of the music that originally made them their name is still fully retained, though — this is a dark, brooding take on funk, a stimulus for «brain-dancing» rather than «body-dancing».
The second large track, ʽKinda Easy Likeʼ, is a little more gimmicky and a little less sensible. First, it starts off totally in ʽGreen Onionsʼ mode — not a good sign for a band whose purpose here is to clearly put some miles between this and their past. Second, several minutes into the track they add some semi-scat, semi-doo-wop vocalizing from «The Pepper Singers», a move whose purpose I fail to comprehend. Imagine a ʽGreen Onionsʼ with some girls going "doo-dah-doo-dah-day!" all over the place. Kinda spoils the fun by trying to add up to it, doesn't it?
Fortunately, the short tracks more than compensate for one strange misgiving. The one that is probably going to stick forever is ʽFuquawiʼ, because the organ riff is of the ʽIron Manʼ variety — you'll be whistling it for days, cursing yourself for being so easily impressionable, but in reality just falling for a standard trick that your wired brain plays on you. The good news is that on top of that «nursery» riff, the band honestly builds up a good groove, and Cropper plays some mean, stinging guitar. It's the coolest, sweatiest strut they ever took since the days of ʽHip Hug-Herʼ, a mean mother-huggin' sound that manages to make them sound more «nasty» (in line with the general tendency) without using any specifically «nasty» effects.
In terms of funkiness, do not miss out on ʽChicken Poxʼ, with a monster bass riff from Dunn and an amusing guitar-organ dialog, and on ʽL. A. Jazz Songʼ, where the Pepper Singers' vocals sound much more natural, as the tune itself sort of follows the formula of the typical blacksploitation movie soundtrack — seriously rhythmic, moderately fast, extremely tense, and perhaps ever so slightly «apocalyptic», all of which is only natural if we want associations with strenuous life conditions of the underprivileged population on the streets of American big cities. The doubled guitar-organ riff of the tune is particularly effective in its «hit-and-run» delivery.
But the album still ends on a lighter note — I think that the title of ʽSunny Mondayʼ was deliberately chosen to contrast with the well-known ʽStormy Mondayʼ; it is probably the first song in the band's catalog to open with an acoustic guitar part (and the chord sequences, by the way, show a clear influence on the part of the recently covered ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ), and one of the very few to feature some romantic orchestration towards the end. Ultimately, everything's well, they tell us, even if this transition to a harsher, funkier sound may originally give the impression that life has become more gloomy, gritty, whatever. Hmm, guess the same could be said about Sticky Fingers, if you remember the opening and the closing tracks on that album. A scary thing, that associative power of the brain's.
Ironically, this album, so very different from the «classic» M.G.'s sound, was to become their last one before the original split, after which the band was never the same again — their own Abbey Road, in a hilarious twist of fate in which their «proper» Abbey Road (McLemore Avenue) was really their confused Let It Be, and this here was when they regrouped, cleared their heads, and pointed the way to the future. On the grand scale of things, Melting Pot ain't no masterpiece (not in the era of Bitches Brew it ain't), but by the self-imposed «humble» standards of these guys, it blows them right through the roof, and deserves a thumbs up like no other.