[19 May 2011]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
Who could have ever thought that a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” and a cover of Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything” would be the two weak spots on an album? Certainly not ?uestlove or Booker T. Jones. Ironically enough, though, that’s the case on Jones’ latest effort, The Road From Memphis, an album that sees the legendary piano player/organist/conveyer of everything “cool” team with the Roots and a few other friends for a string of songs that feel as inspired as anything the former leader of the MGs has ever done.
One would have to imagine combining the man at the front of quite possibly the most legendary house band a studio has ever seen with the man at the front of the quintessential house band of the last 20 years would warrant only triumphant results. And, as you make your way through the 11 tracks that paint The Road, it probably goes without saying that such an assumption would be undoubtedly correct.
From the album’s opening, get-up-out-of-your-seat-funky original, “Walking Papers”, to the final note of the disc’s last track, the Lou Reed-sung “The Bronx”, The Road From Memphis is simply just better than your favorite contemporary rhythm & blues album. And it’s not just because we have a legend on our hands here. Come on, now. You’d have to be insane to not consider the amount of effort ?uest and his production team put into making sure this sounded authentic enough to be considered amongst anything that came from McLemore Avenue, let alone something that came from Booker T. himself.
But before moving forward, one cannot merely ignore the two slip-ups that make the difference between this being a remarkably great album and just a mere great album. So, what’s the problem? Well, while both “Crazy” and “Everything Is Everything” are two highly acclaimed songs, Jones’ instrumental take on those particular tracks just feels like a low-rent move. Yes, ?uest does his best to spice up the drum parts, and yes, the rest of the musicians featured achieve their jobs at a more-than-competent level while sometimes even improving the original compositions. But when surrounded by mostly original material, both tracks come across as more filler than fun, two mild stains on an otherwise squeaky-clean effort.
And it’s a shame, really. Jones should know by now that relying on himself is his best option. For instance, while the living legend brought in others for vocal tracks that appear on The Road, quite clearly the best vocal performance that appears is his, which is featured on “Down in Memphis”, an ode to the town he spent so many years sweating it out on the music scene. The groovy drums and soulful organ combine here for an epic success that wouldn’t have been nearly as victorious had Jones outsourced the singing. His baritone, aged voice sounds precisely like something that came straight from a 1968 Stax Records release.
That said, it isn’t as though his other guests don’t bring something to the table. My Morning Jacket’s Yim Yames makes an appearance that is surprisingly effective on the inspiring Motown-like “Progress”. The aforementioned Reed ads great atmosphere on an already moody tune, proving “The Bronx” is a great way to end the album. And the National’s Matt Berninger and Sharon Jones combine for an unlikely, yet somewhat inspiring dual vocal part on “Representing Memphis”, a song that doesn’t sound a year younger than 1971.
The real winner here, though, is Jones himself. Even without the help of the Roots or any of his guest singers, it’s clear this is a man who has an immeasurable amount of soul music running through his veins. “The Hive”, for example, is James Brown meets the Meters funk, an impossible task that the keyboardist pulls off with ease, while “Rent Party” recalls a modern day Stevie Wonder as the instrumental track oddly sounds a lot like Wonder’s somewhat obscure 2005 single, “What the Fuss”.
Then again, none of this should be a surprise. This is the guy who helped write such classics as “Green Onions” and “Time Is Tight” after all. Still—to think the 66-year-old can continue to produce such unparalleled authentic, indescribably funky and unprecedented soulful rhythm and blues music in such a fashion is nothing short of astonishing. All told, The Road From Memphis is enough to make Jim Stewart, Estelle Axton, Duck Dunn, Rufus Thomas, Eddie Floyd, Johnnie Taylor, Isaac Hayes and any other member of the Stax family smile wherever they are.
Well, smile, and dance, that is.