Booker T. & the M.G.’s – McLemore Avenue (50th Anniversary Edition)
Booker T. & the M.G.’s were basically the house band at rhythm and blues label Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee, playing on countless albums over the sixties and into the seventies from the likes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas, Johnnie Taylor, and Albert King. The group consisted of Booker T. Jones on organ and keyboards, Steve Cropper on guitar, Donald “Duck” Dunn on bass, and Al Jackson Jr. on drums. In addition to the literally hundreds of Stax sessions they played on, they also recorded their own albums, and had a huge international hit with “Green Onions” in 1962. Countless bands in the US and across the pond tried desperately (and mostly unsuccessfully!) to imitate the sound of Booker T. and the M.G.’s. The group continued to play a non-stop schedule of album sessions and made their own records until Al Jackson Jr. was murdered in 1975. While that essentially signaled the end for the band, the remaining members occasionally reunited for gigs here and there, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1992.
Despite most of their focus as being the “house band” of Stax Records – which along with Motown was considered one of the epicenters of soul music and Black culture – Booker T. Jones had an ear for music of all genres. When the Beatles’ Abbey Road was released in September, 1969 – he was completely knocked out! Booker T. and the M.G.’s had to record an album that would place their uniquely soulful spin on the Beatles’ music, and pronto. The result was McLemore Avenue, which was released in April, 1970, only six months after Abbey Road streeted the previous year.
The album’s name, McLemore Avenue, came from the physical address where Stax Records was located in Memphis. What made the album even more of a hoot was that Booker T. and the M.G.’s even spoofed Abbey Road’s iconic cover artwork with their own, featuring the four (by this time in 1970, very funky and hip-looking) members of the band crossing McLemore Avenue in an obvious tribute to the Fab Four. Without even considering the musical content, the execution of the album cover was brilliant, to say the least.
And that music has become legendary. No one else could pull this off – an almost complete re-performance of Abbey Road – except maybe Booker T. and the M.G.’s with their inimitable style and groove! The album consists of three extended medleys and the one song chosen as a single, George Harrison’s “Something.” The ordering of the tracks on the medleys doesn’t necessarily correspond with that of the Beatles’ original, but it works extremely well, nonetheless. Opening with a fifteen-minute-plus “Golden Slumbers”/”Carry That Weight”/”The End”/”Here Comes The Sun”/”Come Together” medley, the album starts off with a firm groove via Booker T’s organ work, with solid bass from Duck Dunn and extremely funky guitar licks from Steve Cropper. Al Jackson Jr. kicks things into high gear with a couple of drum runs on “The End” segment, but his drumming is rock-solid throughout – it’s no wonder the band was hesitant to carry on without him after his untimely death. “Here Comes The Sun” takes on an entirely new meaning with Jones’ incredibly soulful organ vamp, and Cropper’s Fender Telecaster adds a different dimension to a song that was essentially an acoustic affair on the original. As the sunniness of the Harrison-penned tune fades, the M.G.’s crank up the funk for John Lennon’s “Come Together,” with more of Booker T’s on-point organ work, and Cropper is perhaps at his most funky, seriously shredding throughout much of the tune.
The soulfulness you hear in that first medley carries on throughout the entire record; there’s an incredible vibe going on between Booker T. and Cropper in “Something” that gives the song an almost altered sense of meaning. It’s almost like listening compositionally to another song all together – albeit, a very entertaining one! The next medley is a dripping-with-soul seven-plus minutes of “Because”/”You Never Give Me Your Money,” which is in stark contrast to the almost chamber-like feel of the original. The album closes with the “Sun King”/”Mean Mr. Mustard”/”Polythene Pam”/”She Came In Through the Bathroom Window”/”I Want You (She’s So Heavy”) medley. Here’s where the M.G.’s pull out all the stops as they plow through a major chunk of Abbey Road’s Side Two, then give McLemore Avenue its summation with nearly five minutes of the funkiest “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” on record. Cropper fingerpicks the opening motif, then Booker T. Jones just starts wailing on organ; it’s absolutely stunning. With music this great, the five-minute run time passes all too quickly.
The appearance of McLemore Avenue marks the first time it’s been available for streaming in high-resolution; the 24/192 stream on Qobuz was quite simply, sublime. And for those who do MQA, there’s an equally high-res version in that codec available over on Tidal. This album was a landmark release in 1970, and it broke a lot of barriers and conceptions that people had of what kind of music came out of the Stax studios. I’ve already reached out to Craft Recordings for an LP copy (which had been tentatively scheduled as a Record Store Day release), but in the meantime, I plan on listening to the digital stream repeatedly; it’s that good. Very highly recommended!
Craft Recordings, LP (download/streaming [24/192] from Qobuz, [24/192 MQA] Tidal, Amazon Music, Google Play Music, Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, Deezer, TuneIn)
Steven Wilson – The B-Sides Collection (EP)
If you’re a fan at all of progressively-oriented rock music, you should thank your lucky stars for Steven Wilson. I mean, what is there that he can’t do; he records and releases his own superb albums, and takes part in several side project bands, including Porcupine Tree. Above and beyond all that, he spends a copious amount of time remixing and remastering classic albums from the likes of Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, ELP, Gentle Giant and more, often with spectacular results – the dude is basically a genius.
Wilson has a new album to be released in January, 2021, called The Future Bites, and in advance of that blessed day, he’s released a streaming-only, four-track EP of alternate takes and B-sides. The EP is called (unsurprisingly) The B-Sides Collection; at first listen, it’s seemingly business-as-usual in his nonstop output of rarely-less-than-superb music. Hearing these excellent tracks has me basically on the edge of my seat in anticipation for The Future Bites next month.
Wilson’s music shows heavy influences of a lot of the artists he so reveres in his remastering/remixing work; in the tracks from The B-Sides Collection, I hear traces of Yes and Crimson, as well as perhaps a touch of Radiohead (especially in the song “Move Like a Fever”). However, his songs are also very accessible, and this current crop of songs might be among his most pop-tinged; the opening track, “Eyewitness,” is a driving, propulsive, and altogether proggy affair. But when the first chorus arrives, there’s a surprisingly catchy and poppish theme with a great accompanying bevy of female backup singers. The following track, “In Floral Green,” starts with a wash of synths that flows into a very striking piano-based motif, but soon transforms into a full-blown ballad of sorts. This is perhaps a real first for Steven Wilson, but incredibly entertaining nonetheless, with an especially good guitar solo near the track’s conclusion. Rounding out the EP is the instrumental “King Ghost (Tangerine Dream mix),” which is pretty true to its proggish billing. It’s billowing with Tangerine Dream-like synthesizers, and a subterraneanly driving bass track that will shake your brain, as well as your home’s foundation.
All my listening was done with the superb 24/96 digital stream from Qobuz, although the EP is also available with an MQA stream from Tidal, if you’re so inclined. I have Tidal, but don’t have an easily accessible MQA setup in my system, but I do eventually intend to check it out. As great as these B-sides are, I really can’t wait for the full album’s release! Very highly recommended.
Arts & Crafts Productions, (download/streaming [24/96] from Qobuz, [24/96 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Pandora, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Tori Amos – Christmastide (EP)
Christmastide is a four-track EP of Tori Amos originals, each with a yuletide theme designed to help assuage the souls of fans afflicted with an overdose of #2020. Tori released the following statement in advance of the EP’s release: “With Christmastide it was important to be positive and to try and lift people’s spirits. It’s a time of year that should be joyful with family and friends but also can sadly be a very lonely place for some. Many families will be unable to be together this year because of the pandemic as well as many that are also dealing with the aftermath of a long and bitter US election. I hope these songs contained in this beautiful package can be a small treat to help along the way.” By beautiful package, I assume she’s talking about the gatefold vinyl LP version, which contains additional artwork from illustrator and designer Rantz Hosely, who did the cover art and contributed to the video’s striking imagery (be sure to watch the video using the link below). The LP package also includes a Christmas card from Tori along with a special holiday message for her fans; a limited edition, signed-by-Tori version has already sold out.
If you were expecting “chestnuts roasting by an open fire” as part of Tori’s yuletide celebration, you’re in for a disappointment. The songs are a fairly spartan affair, with only Amos’ piano and vocals, and accompaniment from longtime collaborators Matt Chamberlain on drums and Jon Evans on bass. Mac Aladdin also adds to the proceedings with a variety of guitars. The opening track, “Christmastide,” is about as dour a holiday song as one could reasonably expect, although the message is very uplifting: “It’s time that we shine, we all need to shine…and with this Christmas time, side by side, we’ll sail on a Christmas tide.” “Circle of Seasons” is a song about Midwinter’s Eve, or the Winter’s Solstice, which, while only days away from the observed Christmas holiday, is also a period of pagan celebration, especially in Celtic cultures. “Called now to take the ancient pilgrimage…Midwinter’s Eve…a circle of seasons…we will see this through, ’til the sun rises new.” The closing “Better Angels” is the only song on the EP that isn’t in a minor key, and is the effort’s most uplifting track, reading almost like a chronicle of all the madness from this most crazy of years. “Oh what a year to be here, on this little rock, third from the sun…and we need some mercy, lighting a way from south to north,” and continues: “a flame for change grows…Heaven, help us out of this never-ending spell.”
All my listening was done with Qobuz’s 24/44.1 stream, and the sound was excellent, though an MQA version is also available on Tidal, so higher-res choices abound. While it ain’t Bing Crosby or Johnny Mathis, the message presented here by Tori Amos is a good one for the holiday season, with lyrics that are perhaps less obtuse than the typical offering from the goddess. Highly recommended, and true fans will definitely want to seek out the LP package.
Decca (UMO), Limited edition LP (download/streaming [24/44.1] from Qobuz, [24/44.1 MQA] Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Kacy & Clayton and Marlon Williams – Plastic Bouquet
Kacy & Clayton are a Canadian roots/folk music duo who consist of guitarist and vocalist Kacy Anderson and her second cousin, multi-instrumentalist Clayton Linthicum. They’ve been playing together for over a decade now (since they were kids), and have risen to a fairly high level of prominence and credibility in the last couple of years. After being signed by New West Records in 2016, they came to the attention of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who brought them onboard to open for Wilco’s tour. He then produced their next album, 2017’s The Siren’s Song in his Chicago studio, The Loft. After the album’s release, Kacy & Clayton were asked to open for the Decemberists on that band’s next tour. Tweedy then produced the duo’s follow-up record, Carrying On, in 2019. Suddenly, a whole lot of people were getting exposed to Kacy & Clayton. They’ve won a Canadian Folk Music award for Best Young Performers, and have been nominated for the prestigious Juno and Polaris awards.
New Zealander singer/songwriter Marlon Williams had just embarked on his own career, with several acclaimed releases, and tour appearances with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Florence + the Machine, Brandy Carlisle, and Lorde, among others. He’s won several New Zealand music awards, and was handpicked by Bradley Cooper to appear in the reboot of the movie A Star Is Born. While touring in Europe in 2017, Williams was checking out Spotify during a break, and a song by Kacy & Clayton appeared in his feed. He was completely enchanted by what he was hearing, and took a chance by firing off an instant message to the duo, who responded surprisingly quickly. They started chatting regularly, and by December of 2018, Marlon Williams had flown to Saskatoon to meet Kacy & Clayton. Their chemistry was undeniable, and they immediately started working on songs together.
Plastic Bouquet is the fruit of that union. They wrote and recorded most of what would ultimately become the album over a three-week period, and the trio soon discovered that their playing and singing styles meshed nearly seamlessly. Some additional recording was done in Nashville, along with some mixing work in Sweden. With the project now being international in scope, the timetable for Plastic Bouquet didn’t move very quickly. Suddenly, it’s 2020, and we’re in the great pandemic; the album’s release and an ensuing tour was temporarily shelved. With things continuing to drag on seemingly without end, a decision was made to go ahead and at least release the record.
Hearing the songs on Plastic Bouquet, you’d believe that the trio had been singing together their entire lives. Kacy Anderson has an angelic alto voice that’s not at all unlike that of a very youthful Emmylou Harris; she and Marlon Williams share most of the vocal duties. Clayton Linthicum branches out on this album, expanding his role from mostly fingerpicking acoustic guitarist to playing a variety of electric guitars (including pedal steel) and keyboards, including a vintage organ. The trio is rounded out by members of their touring ensemble on bass and drums. And with the addition of Marlon Williams, Kacy & Clayton have stepped pretty far outside their musical comfort zone, which had previously been limited to traditional folk songs from the British Isles and folk and country from Appalachia. Some of the songs are harder-edged, bordering on electrified rock, and the addition of the organ gives some of the songs a slightly bluesy, jazzy feel.
The songs here are brief, and the album clocks in at just under thirty minutes. If there’s a downside, it’s that some of the amazing playing by Clayton Linthicum could definitely benefit from being stretched out by a couple of minutes per song. Let’s say the partnership is a work in progress; hopefully when the pandemic ends, they can spend more time together, both in the studio and on the road, and deliver an album that’s a bit more substantial. The 24/48 digital stream on Qobuz is superb – it’s just over much too quickly! Highly recommended.
New West Records, CD/LP (download/streaming [24/48] from Qobuz, Tidal, Amazon, Google Play Music, Deezer, Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, TuneIn)
Header image of Steven Wilson courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/joergens.mi.