Boz Scaggs: Memphis

Legendary singer's new record is lean, tight, and pure -- and avoids boredom, too.

Boz Scaggs


Label: 429
US Release Date: 2013-03-05
UK Release Date: 2013-03-04

Boz Scaggs is not exactly a household name -- but, dammit, he should be. He's been killing it as a white-guy soul singer since his stint in the Steve Miller Band in the late 1960s, even though his closest vocal comparison is "sexy Kermit the Frog."

Those who know a little something know that very few albums have ever beaten Silk Degrees or Middle Man for pure funky smoothness. He notoriously took most of the 1980s off, becoming a successful nightclub owner. But he has recorded some very strong records in the last two decades; this later work, including 2008's adventurous Speak Low, shows that Scaggs still has his foggy voice, which has lost none of its power -- and a restless musical spirit.

So here we are in 2013, and Boz Scaggs travels down to Memphis to make a record informed by that city's unparalleled soul and R&B culture. In fact, like others before him, he booked Royal Studios, where Willie Mitchell and Al Green recorded the most beautiful pop music ever made by anyone at any time in history.

So, you're probably thinking worthy-but-snoozy nostalgia trip, right? One of those records that you give your grandfather for his birthday, maybe, but you'd never listen to on your own? Something that's so middle-of-the-road that it might as well have yellow lines painted on it? Well, Boz Scaggs -- even at age 68 -- has too much soul for that. In fact, Memphis is lean and tight, deeply felt but never boring.

The lead single, a cover of Willy DeVille's "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl", just about jumps out of the radio... or it would if any radio station outside of AAA would touch it. The song is full of love and confusion, like all great love songs; its lean, serpentine guitar line and hushed heartbeat drums contrast beautifully with Scaggs's testifying vocals and the gospel back-up harmonies.

(In fact, I'm just going to mention some of the musicians here, but I'll do it parenthetically because these guys are all legends and their names matter to me but might not mean a thing to you. Ray Parker Jr. plays guitar; Spooner Oldham plays keyboards; and the rhythm section is Willie Weeks and Steve Jordan. If you don't know them, I'm sorry for you; if you do, you're already on your way to buy this record.)

It's a little disconcerting to hear Boz Scaggs nail a flawless Al Green impression on "It's So Good to Be Here", but he does, down to the last vocal filigree and the floating strings up top and the muted horn stings. Even the song's construction is perfect -- the chorus just seems to go on, twisting and turning here and there until you're not really sure where it's going at any given moment.

The song choice here could not really be any better. Could any other human croon Steely Dan's "Pearl of the Quarter" at this juncture, making it sound fresh and real instead of sappy? I submit to you that the answer is no, including Donald Fagen himself. (Note: Scaggs has been appearing with Fagen and Michael McDonald as the Dukes of September.)

"Cadillac Walk", another Willy DeVille song, is slinky and muscular; "Dry Spell" is electric blues with some of the hardest-edged guitar tones you'll hear this year; "You Got Me Cryin'", a slow weeper, shows the other side of the blues.

But probably the most beautiful thing here is the cover of "Love on a Two Way Street", the ballad recorded by the Moments and Stacy Lattislaw, among others. Everything here is perfectly calibrated for maximum sadness, capped off by Scaggs's melancholy vocals.

All in all, Memphis is perfectly set up to be one of the signal records of 2013, and the decade, even though it could probably have been recorded at any time in the last 20 or 30 years. It just goes to show you that soul don't age... and that Boz Scaggs is one of the smoothest bastards on Earth.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.