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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Get High and Cruise Down McLemore Avenue -- Booker T. & the MGs' Take on Abbey Road

Posted By on Tue, May 3, 2011 at 1:50 PM

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This Week: Cruise down McLemore Avenue with Booker T. & the MGs

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Behind the buzz: Loosened from Stax Records' leaky grip by the recent avalanche of Beatles-related reissues is this 1970 reconfiguration of Abbey Road. As leader of the house band for the Memphis soul giant, Booker T. Jones was in a position to demand much, and chose the curious reward of recording this metamelodic concept album for a label that specialized in dance singles by the likes of Wilson Pickett and Rufus "The Funky Chicken" Thomas. Besides showing off Carnegie-level chops on Stax sides like "Soul Man" and "Try a Little Tenderness," Booker & his guys were a name-brand instrumental soul act in their own right, with "Green Onions" topping the Billboard R&B chart in 1962, or well before Stateside fans knew the Beatles as anything but some kind of proofreader's error or accidental Joycean pun.

Today's dope: Pursang Haze, a rank and fuzzy hybrid with a kick like something out of a Sonny Chiba movie.

Deep-fried Jelly Babies: Here Booker T. & the guys slather the Fab Four's R&B-derived music with a fresh coat of funky before taking Paul McCartney's Side Two mini-symphony for a joyride down Soul Street. Approaching the problems of Macca's melodic vehicle as a matter of reverse engineering, Booker begins at nearly "The End," whomping together a spine-tingling R&B suite out of the source album's finale, which in turn folds "Here Comes the Sun" Escher-like into "Come Together" for a single stupendous 15-plus-minute track. "Something" rates its own separate exploration, with George Harrison's best-loved song given additional heft and eloquence with Booker T.'s piano lines and virtuoso guitar solos by Steve "The Colonel" Cropper that almost push proceedings into the proggy stratosphere. The doomy symmetry of "Because/You Never Give Me Your Money" is conjured into a trawl down Beale Street on a steamy Friday night, and the closing medley of "Mean Mister Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came in Through the Bathroom Window/I Want You (She's So Heavy)" begins with a Lennonesque simmer before settling into a long hypno-groove highlighted by some of Jones' career-best keyboard figures. Al Jackson Jr.'s all-devouring cymbal shimmer closes out the album with the quartet's fine old trick of running proceedings down like some steampunk-era clockwork funk machine coming to the end of its nickel's worth of play. This tasty reissue is a fine replacement for the old Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs CD now going for ruinous sums on eBay. Hold on for the radio spot buried at the end.

More Applejack: If the five magisterially brooding bonus covers of earlier Beatles tunes like "You Can't Do That" and "Eleanor Rigby" aren't enough, bend an ear to this raging-sick 1969 cover of "Back in the U.S.S.R." by a Southern boy named John Fred, whose "Judy in Disguise (with Glasses)" delights fans of Maclen pastiche to this giddy hour.

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