Booker T. Jones - Sound the Alarm (2013)

Booker T. Jones
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Whether he knows it or not, Booker T. Jones is the official ambassador of Stax (sorry, Mavis). It’s not just because he’s back on the Concord-revived Stax imprint for his latest solo record, Sound the Alarm, but it’s because everything he’s put out since leaving the historic Southern soul label back in the 1970s has revolved around his contributions to the label. To new ears, Jones has come a long way from being pegged to his M.G.’s work. His last three solo albums for the Anti- label, particularly Potato Hole and the much revered The Road From Memphis, placed him in the dynamic company of rock, pop, soul and hip-hop youngbloods, including: the Drive-By-Truckers, ?uestlove and The Roots, Sharon Jones (of Dap Kings fame) and Jim James, giving the gifted organist and songwriter a new lease on life. Technically, Jones isn’t rusty with his skill.

Whether he knows it or not, Booker T. Jones is the official ambassador of Stax (sorry, Mavis). It’s not just because he’s back on the Concord-revived Stax imprint for his latest solo record, Sound the Alarm, but it’s because everything he’s put out since leaving the historic Southern soul label back in the 1970s has revolved around his contributions to the label. To new ears, Jones has come a long way from being pegged to his M.G.’s work. His last three solo albums for the Anti- label, particularly Potato Hole and the much revered The Road From Memphis, placed him in the dynamic company of rock, pop, soul and hip-hop youngbloods, including: the Drive-By-Truckers, ?uestlove and The Roots, Sharon Jones (of Dap Kings fame) and Jim James, giving the gifted organist and songwriter a new lease on life. Technically, Jones isn’t rusty with his skill. His previous record, The Road From Memphis, actually showed off newer compositions that would have easily fit into the constellation of M.G.’s classics. On Sound the Alarm, Jones assembles his own power team to create nostalgic tunes that embrace the totality of timeless soul music, even if the majority of it has nothing to do with the Stax formula.

A star-studded cast includes: Mayer Hawthorne, Anthony Hamilton, Gary Clark, Jr., Estelle, Jay James and a dozen of A-list musicians. Each gives off the impression Jones is more relaxed, possibly taking the carpool lane on the highways of East Street Expressway, but his presence is surely felt. “Gently,” with its warm mocha urban soul grooves and relaxed mid-tempo shuffle, is the epitome of what one expects in an Anthony Hamilton track. Hamilton shows up with his distinguished, gritty pipes, singing to the serenading calm of Jones’s Hammond B-3. On the title track, Mayer Hawthorne sings alongside Jones’s subdued organ, but the track’s nostalgic arrangement pulls at the coattails of Bobby Womack soul. With “Broken Heart,” the Avila Brothers – protégés from the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis camp – bring in Raphael Saadiq on guitar and Jam & Lewis behind the boards to sew up a song worthy of radio airplay. Newcomer Jay James takes control of the vocal, singing like a Lyfe Jennings-in-training. He deals with a lover whose buyer’s remorse is now taking a U-turn: “Didn’t appreciate what you had/Now you’re begging me to take you back.” But, he’s regained much of his composure, shouting he “don’t need your ass no more.” The oddball in the bunch is the contemporary urban pounce on the Estelle-guested “Can’t Wait,” which isn’t exactly memorable, but still works as pleasant filler.

The famed funky instrumentals – a specialty in the Booker T. regimen – are still in place. Jones takes Memphis blues to the barrooms of Austin, Texas via his collaboration with the talented Gary Clark, Jr. on “Austin Blues Idea.” “Father Son Blues” puts Jones in the ring with his son, Ted Jones, who raises his guitar strumming to psychedelic heights. Shelia E. jumps in on the Latin-tinged “66 Impala” while “Fun” plays with Stax’s Northern rival in the wake of William A. Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown.”

Throughout, Jones focuses more on taking the crossover approach with this record than previous recordings. And, why shouldn’t he? He tried the old school approach with the decent effort that was 2009’s Potato Hole, but it earned very little reception. Some will call this disc a reprehensible sell-out, but Jones isn’t worried about all that jazz. That’s because he’s surrounded with tunes that compliment his tradition, many of which he composed in conjunction with the Avila Brothers or on his own. Even if he’s divided the soundtrack with what he does best with those songs that put more shine on newer, younger contemporaries, that old idiom is still going to ring loud: “You cannot please everybody.” But, Jones is a pleaser, whether he’s causing his organ to purr on a funky “Green Onions” instrumental or composing a tune with the right singer in mind. No, he doesn’t find someone with the gravitas of an Otis Redding or William Bell to sing this set of tunes, but he’s still in good company. Accordingly, Sound the Alarm, a complimentary response to The Road From Memphis, is a disc that feels like a return to home. Instead, this time he’s riding to “Aston Martin Music” rather than “Mustang Sally.” Recommended.

By J Matthew Cobb

 
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