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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Booker T. & The M.G.'s: Union Extended


1) Overton Park Sunrise; 2) Steve's Stroll; 3) Duck Walk; 4) Cotton Carnival; 5) Midnight On McLemore; 6) Union Extended; 7) Avalon; 8) Around Orange Mound; 9) National Jackson; 10) Beale Street Revival; 11) Saucy Pt. 2; 12) Booker's Theme.

Only nine days after Booker T. and the M.G.'s finally came together and agreed to give their romance one more chance, Al Jackson Jr. was murdered in his own home. Plans for a new album were temporarily scratched, but relationships between Booker T. and the remaining members of the band were somewhat remedied, and, as tribute to the dear departed, Stax put out this record of previously unreleased archive material — with a title that was thrice misleading: not only did Union Exten­ded contain no new recordings, but it wasn't even prophetic, since the extended union only lasted for less than two years, and the union had nothing to do with Stax.

Nevertheless, this here is a fine enough gathering of leftovers. It has never been issued on CD and is rather hard to come by in physical form these days, and the exact dates for the recordings are unknown, but judging by the overall stylistics and instrumentation, I'd probably put them around 1968-70. All the tracks are original instrumental compositions by the M.G.'s and are no better and no worse than their regular stuff — and commenting on them individually, for that reason, is tremendously hard, but here goes a feeble attempt.

ʽOverton Park Sunriseʼ is a fairly good title, since Jones and Cropper's playing on the track sounds «fresh», particularly Jones' «water-droplet» organ tone that sometimes throws on the hook from ʽSunnyʼ and Cropper's sunshine-poppy guitar riff — a dang good song to start off your day with if you're in need of a quick, painless shot of optimism. ʽCotton Carnivalʼ begins by sounding like ʽBorn Under A Bad Signʼ transposed to a major tonality, then, all of a sudden, shifts half of its riff to a quotation from ʽSunshine Of Your Loveʼ in the coda section — funny, and easy to miss, but it's there all right. ʽMidnight On McLemoreʼ may have been written and/or recorded around midnight in the studio, of course, but its musical skeleton is essentially a variation on ʽSummertimeʼ — then again, ʽSummertimeʼ has always had a nocturnal aura around it. Anyway, some nice, quietly haunting organ and guitar themes again.

The most haunting track, though, is arguably placed at the very end, where ʽBooker's Themeʼ, opening with the sound of sea waves and a romantic piano motif, quickly gets a string arrange­ment and becomes the perfect soundtrack for one of those ride-across-the-country, freedom-wind hippie movies of the late Sixties. Since the band almost never used the orchestra on its original tracks, this could have been a later overdub, but it works — in fact, it works in perfect contrast with the opening number: ʽOverton Park Sunriseʼ opened the day for us, and ʽBooker's Themeʼ is the ideal sundown-at-the-beach track, closing the day. Whoever assembled this stuff at Stax sure had a knack for conceptuality.

Anyway, a solid thumbs up here: it is certainly telling that an album of outtakes released in 1976 would be more satisfactory than the band's contemporary output — if anything, playing Union Extended in its little time machine pod back-to-back with the modernized Universal Language gives an ample demonstration of how much the ideology had changed in about six or seven years' time. Not for the better, of course — you knew I'd say that, didn't you?

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