I know it’s hard to do, but admit it: those Booker T. & the MG’s records are kinda corny. Yes, yes, they’re fun, they’re groovy, they’re funky, and they’re slathered with so much Memphis-style sauce, it wouldn’t be hard to mistake ‘em for a dish at Payne’s BBQ. But still, those Beatles covers, that Rascals cover, hell, even “Green Onions” … they’re all just kinda corny in a lighthearted, we-cracked-the-bottle-open-and-this-is-what-poured-out kinda way. This is an observation that nobody likes to make, mainly because it casts an aspersion on the World’s Best House Band, the guys that defined the Stax take on Memphis soul in the ‘60s. But I don’t think the band would mind; they knew that the rock-solid grooves they were laying down behind the likes of Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding were the meat and potatoes; “Green Onions” was just a garnish.
Booker T. Jones’ recent solo work, however, is anything but corny. His last solo record — 2009’s Potato Hole — was a tour de force of gritty, twangy blues on which he completely and appropriately overshadowed the contributions of the Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young. On The Road from Memphis, Jones ups the collaborator ante: the Roots are the backing band this time around, guests like Sharon Jones and Jim James make appearances, and Gabe Roth (Daptone Records) was brought in to man the boards. And, once again, the real stars here are Jones’ organ hands. Demonstrating a style that’s less concerned with the cheerful melodies and jaunty basslines of the M.G.s’ most famous work, Jones’ sound here is more measured and full-bodied, giving substantial leeway to Questlove’s ferocious, on-the-mark drumming. The organ still leads the way — sometimes in quirky and near-improvisational ways, such as on the fiercely funky “The Hive” — but most of The Road from Memphis sounds like the work of a band that’s spent years together, rather than a leader and a backup band.
The funk here is deep and solid, but what’s most refreshing is how Jones and the Roots never opt for the most obvious breaks or riffs; the noodly, soulful cover of “Crazy” (you knew he’d cover something, right?), the punishingly unpredictable twists and turns of “Harlem House,” and the head-bobbing crunch of “Down in Memphis” all manage to punch your gut with a groove without giving the slightest indication that the compositions are taking anything for granted. Of the 11 tracks on The Road from Memphis, the only real bummer is the treacly hometown homage of “Representing Memphis,” featuring Sharon Jones and The National’s Matt Beringer; instead of burning through the track with Sharon Jones’ fringe-flecked fire or Beringer’s deep-throated melodrama, both guests seem to shy away from the enormity of the job at hand, making the tourist-board-ready tune even more … well, corny.