Album of the week : Sound The Alarm - Booker T

In his illustrious fifty year career, Booker T. Jones has been many things. Namely, a multi-instrumentalist (piano, organ, oboe, sax, trombone, guitar, bass), a prolific songwriter and a producer responsible for some of the R&B’s signature sounds. Oh yes, and he is also a classical music composer. He’s been responsible for some of the biggest soul hits ever; Otis Redding and Sam & Dave owe a hell of a lot to Booker T. It’s therefore pretty unsurprising that he’s snagged a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement

Jones could easily be coasting on the nostalgia and hitting the road with a few fake MGs, but he continues to release records that acknowledge his history while keeping an eye on the present. And most admirably, his recent recordings – Potato Hole, with the Drive-By Truckers, The Road From Memphis, with the Roots, and now Sound the Alarm – have each had a different feel

The recent reactivation of Stax Records (where Booker T. worked through the 1960s & 70s) has seen him return to the label where he helped to craft the signature ‘Memphis soul’ sound. Perhaps because of this, Sound The Alarm is a delectable mixture of old and new. Creeping soul grooves that are heavily anchored in the 70s have been dusted off with some sleek new production and a host of new voices

The new disc comes with a stellar cast of guest vocalists and a core band made up mainly of Bobby Ross Avila and Issiah ‘IZ’ Avila, who did much of the co-writing, and soul revivalist Raphael Saadiq. Mostly, it’s in a more conventional R&B style than its predecessors, which should delight Stax Records

The 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 that 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 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 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. The Latin-styled scorcher 66 Impala, with sizzling percussion from Poncho Sanchez and Sheila E., would be blazing from every car and window all summer in a better world, while ‘Fun’ plays with Stax’s Northern rival in the wake of William A. Robinson’s ‘Tears of a Clown’ and ‘Feel Good’ is aptly named and recalls the MGs

Instant classic ‘Your Love Is No Love’, fronted by Vintage Trouble, is certainly bringing a smile from Otis Redding and Solomon Burke somewhere, while a brilliant flash of modern experimentation comes in ‘Can’t Wait’, where soft imprints of Hammond organ float over a crunching, screwed up drum pattern

Sound The Alarm doesn’t reinvent the wheel as much as give it a coat of paint – but when the result sounds this good, who really cares

You can catch Booker T at Ronnie Scott’s in London August 14-17

Buy it here

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August 02, 2013

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