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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: That's The Way It Should Be

BOOKER T. & THE M.G.'s: THAT'S THE WAY IT SHOULD BE (1994)

1) Slip Slidin'; 2) Mo' Greens; 3) Gotta Serve Somebody; 4) Let's Wait Awhile; 5) That's The Way It Should Be; 6) Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me); 7) Camel Ride; 8) Have A Heart; 9) Cruisin'; 10) I Can't Stand The Rain; 11) Sarasota Sunset; 12) I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

Hey, they're back. Oh, technically speaking, Booker T. & the M.G.'s never went away for too long: throughout the Eighties and early Nineties, they occasionally reuinted in various configura­tions for various purposes — they did, however, sit the whole Eighties out without attempting to record any new albums, which was probably as wise a decision as they could possibly take. And it was not until 1992, when Bob Dylan asked them to back him for his «thirty years in the biz» anniversary, that the thought of making new music came back into their minds — by which time the retro-vibe had already set in, and they were free to return to their «classic» sound if they so desired, without having to go through the electronic filter.

Enlisting Steve Jordan on drums, the band relies on the trusty old formula: instrumental rendi­tions of a few classic tunes, a few (relatively) contemporary hits, and a bunch of originals thrown in. You can see that the running lengths are slightly extended, as they take advantage of the new CD format to stretch out — hardly necessary, in my opinion, but not tragic or anything; and you do notice the new drummer, because Jordan has a ponderous, hard-hitting style, quite far removed from the original funky lightness of Al Jackson's kit, but, again, not tragic.

And I do like the record — I think they did a good job answering that question for us, «what would Booker T. sound like if he had all the benefits of modern production?» This is your answer: they work here exactly the same way as they used to, but from the opening notes of ʽSlip Slidin'ʼ you can discern the «cleanness» of the sound that could not have been achieved thirty years back. Not that it really matters, of course — the M.G.'s always had the best of best sounds even way back when. What is much more important is their selection of the material, and it's fun.

The oldest tracks here are from the early 1970s: a suitably tender, organ-dominated cover of the Temptations' ʽJust My Imaginationʼ, and a harsher, heavier, bluesier, more guitar-oriented cover of Ann Peebles' ʽI Can't Stand The Rainʼ. Then they do Dylan's ʽGotta Serve Somebodyʼ which they'd already performed at the anniversary show (Booker takes the lead, but Cropper also throws in a stinging blues solo); Bonnie Raitt's ʽHave A Heartʼ (why? why? what's so goddamn good about that song?); and probably the least predictable choice — finishing the album off with U2's ʽI Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking Forʼ. Maybe that was their way of telling us "I'll be back", but if so, they still haven't capitalized on that promise as of 2015.

Oh, wait, no, the least predictable inclusion is a cover of Janet Jackson's ʽLet's Wait Awhileʼ. Yes, right, if you cannot release a record during the crappiest musical decade of the century, you should at least cover one of its crappiest hits. And even the way it is done by these guys, you can still understand that you're dealing with a corny adult contemporary ballad — but it is interesting, actually, to play this one back to back with ʽJust My Imaginationʼ and try to understand just what it is that so profoundly separates the former from the latter. Is it the use of the more «obvious» chord sequences in the JJ song? Their nagging repetitiveness? It certainly isn't just a matter of arrangements, which in this particular case are quite similar.

Of the new tunes, ʽMo' Greensʼ is... well, you guessed. But it's actually got a different groove from the original — a little slower, grizzlier, more ominous, and with a weeping solo from Cropper that tries to inject a little soul-and-sentiment into a franchise that used to concentrate on just biting and snapping. ʽCamel Rideʼ is funny, funky, and more than a little reminiscent in its basic theme of Zappa's ʽWillie The Pimpʼ (I keep expecting Captain Beefheart to step in at any minute); ʽCruisin'ʼ is based on the ʽMemphis Tennesseeʼ groove and is the most dansable number on the album; and ʽSarasota Sunsetʼ is a nice mid-tempo jam that could indeed go down well along with a well-earned sunset, though not much more.

Anyway, I have read a few disappointed reactions to the album and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out why — I mean, who would ever want to expect any ambitions from a 30-year old instrumental R&B band that only, like, released one or two album's worth of ambitious material in its entire career? The organ tones are conservative and classy, Cropper's guitar solos only gain in depth and experience with the passage of time, and even though I have no idea why I should be enduring a Janet Jackson ballad from these guys, I'll take it as a man, in honor of all the good things they did for humanity (and it's not as if they haven't covered quite a few shitty tunes even way back when). Thumbs up, and thank God, actually, that this, rather than the unnatural-sound­ing Universal Language, is the (currently) last item in the band's discography. Yep, that's the way it should be, yes indeed sir. 

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