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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The M.G.'s: The M.G.'s

THE M.G.'s: THE M.G.'s (1973)

1) Sugar Cane; 2) Neck Bone; 3) Spare Change; 4) Leaving The Past; 5) Left Overs (Bucaramanga); 6) Black Side; 7) One Of A Kind (Love Affair); 8) Frustration.

Yes, technically this album belongs in its own section or at least in the «special addenda» corner, but we will make a logistic exception and treat it as a regular part of the discography just for the sake of continuity. Not long after the release of Melting Pot, the two main creative guys in the band — Booker T. himself and Steve Cropper — ever more unhappy about being tied up by the new rules at Stax, decided to break the chain and move on to an uncertain, but seemingly more exciting (as it looked to them at the time) future.

The rhythm section, however, as is often the case with rhythm sections around the world, felt that the name of «M.G.'s» was everything they had left in this world, and ultimately they decided to stick to it. After a few tentative detours, Dunn and Jackson teamed up with Stax session guitarist Bobby Manuel and newly-emerged organ sensation Carson Whitsett — and now that once again there were four of them, they thought it sensible to just lop off the «Booker T.» part and bill themselves as «The M.G.'s» for their next record.

Now obviously, one's first basic instinct would be to dismiss the album without giving it a chance: after all, as reliable as the band's rhythm section had always been, most of the time we were really coming back to their tunes in order to hear some classic guitar/organ interplay. And indeed, when you listen to The M.G.'s right after Melting Pot, the initial feeling is almost guaranteed to be underwhelming. The funky backbone is all but gone, not a single song is as catchy as ʽFuquawiʼ, and the whole album seems to be very low-key, almost begging you to accept it as unremarkable background music while you're busy doing your typical 1973-style chores.

However, it is also immediately noticeable that the new band is trying — not merely coasting on the strength of their reputation. Most of the compositions are self-written (with just a couple taken from rather obscure sources), the arrangements and moods are relatively diverse, and there are some relatively long and complex tunes that show a mildly «progressive» spirit. This alone should guarantee a few extra listens, and eventually you might come to realize that the record is not all bad — its biggest disadvantage, perhaps, is that it is really so quiet. Unlike Booker T. and Cropper, the new guitarist and organist sometimes give the odd impression of competing in who of the two can «out-hush» the other one. Yet they are doing it in good taste.

Perhaps the single finest example of this competition comes on the seven-minute long ʽLeaving The Pastʼ, largely an acoustic number with several sections that smoothly flow from simple folk to more «baroque» textures, then eventually make the transition into jazzy and then bluesy terri­tory. Everything is done so quietly that your attention may easily drift away, and yet it is probably the single most complex composition up that was up to that point credited to the name of The M.G.'s. And it is quite likeable — the first half being elegantly romantic and the second more self-consciously «cool», as Manuel's acoustic guitar really roots all of these parts in the «past» (no clear signs of anybody «leaving» it, though). Nobody is going to remember it all that much, no, but accidentally falling upon it somewhere in your collection can trigger some good emotions every once in a while.

Most of the other tracks, while technically «louder», are just as inobtrusive. Typically, they will feature a soft, tasteful, friendly organ melody from Whitsett (ʽSugar Caneʼ, ʽOne Of A Kindʼ), set to a funky rhythm pattern that is so frail and delicate, hearing this kind of take on funk would be like watching Audrey Hepburn in a boxing ring — well, maybe not as gimmicky, but a pretty solid analogy all the same. Very rarely the music packs a bit more muscle, when Al Jackson agrees to pummel rather than caress his skins and Whitsett includes some bombastic honky-tonk piano playing (ʽSpare Changeʼ), or when Duck Dunn decides to play a «threatening» bass line (ʽLeft Oversʼ), but even a track called ʽFrustrationʼ, where you could theoretically expect them to auto-destruct their equipment in the studio or something, is really just one more low-key piece of clean, soft, smooth fusion with perhaps a tiny pinch of psychedelia, provided by the trebley guitar tone and a mind-manipulative overdub strategy.

But give this stuff time, and The M.G.'s might just turn out to be one of those barely noticeable, non-flashy, self-reserved albums that show how good music can be made without pulling rock'n'­roll faces — all the more amusing that it was released at the height of the glam era, when Keith Emerson and Mick Ronson ruled the day and hiding in the shadow to play your instrument was a surefire commercial suicide. And, of course, The M.G.'s was a commercial suicide — none of its singles charted, much less the album itself. It still got some good reviews, though, and continues to be warmly treated even today, but you do have to warm up to it. An outstanding non-triumph of being utterly non-outstanding, it deserves all the thumbs up it can get without getting your hands out of your trouser pockets.

1 comment:

  1. Leaving the Past is remarkable for yet another reason: it's a cheerful song and mainly in major keys, in a time that all rock artists wrote in minor. Indeed a case can be made that it's a progressive song - it's just the exact opposite direction Yes, Genesis and ELP chose!
    I disagree with your conclusion. Leaving the Past didn't require any warming up from me; it's an outstanding song indeed, exactly because it's so completely atypical for the year 1973 and still works.