Booker T Jones' 10th album brings him back to Stax, the Memphis-based label that gave him his first hit, the preposterously slinky instrumental Green Onions, and employed him as a house musician for most of the 1960s. There are songs on Sound the Alarm that sound as though they could have been written back then: Feel Good actually feels a bit lazy because of it, but Fun is just that, a three-minute party of stomping percussion, irrepressible bass and jittery, dancing Hammond riffs, while 66 Impala is blissfully cheesy, with organ and sax darting across rattlesnake Latin rhythms. For every step back, however, there are two steps forward: most of the tracks find Jones collaborating with some hot young artist, be it Bill Withers' daughter Kori on Watch You Sleeping, her voice billowing like silk across the rough cotton of Jones' baritone; or R&B singer Luke James, creamily calling out infidelity in All Over the Place; or guitarist Gary Clark Jr in Austin Blues Idea, an instrumental that isn't so much a duet as a chewing-the-fat, setting-the-world-to-rights get-together over whiskey after dark.
Booker T Jones’ comeback continues. While The Committee lavished a Grammy on his last album, there wasn’t much about it that screamed “contemporary artist”. Sound The Alarm changes all that. Let’s get the bad news behind us, because we don’t want it interrupting the good – of which there’s plenty.
In his pre-“NCIS: LA” existence, LL Cool J once rhymed in the persona of a struggling rapper on “Cheesy Rat Blues.” Times got so hard that Mr. Smith implored the crowd to engage in a classic B-Boy approval gesture of waving their hands in the air. Then he relieved them of their trinkets by calmly asking them to keep their hands up and commanding, “Run the jewels.” Between their respective, indie imprints, Definitive Jux and Grind Time Official, El-P and Killer Mike aren’t hurting for paper like LL’s fictional character.
Killer Mike and El-P have spent a full year ridiculing the idea that their partnership wouldn't work. It’s been a slow but comprehensive shaming, beginning with the El-P-produced haymaker R.A.P Music – one of 2012’s finest records – and continuing as the pair enthused about their working relationship at damn near every opportunity they had. By now it’s clear that what was once billed as an unlikely coming together has transcended mere collaboration; this is a mutual love-in; a kindred alignment; a friendship.
Apparently, you can teach an old dog new tricks. Green Onions creator Booker T has returned to his original label home and recorded an album that sounds anything but ancient. Sound The Alarm, his new record, features a star-studded musical cast, with names such as Mayer Hawthorne, Anthony Hamilton, and Gary Clark, Jr, and chic, contemporary production that’s glitzier than Justin Timberlake’s suit and tie.
Booker T Jones marks his return to the Stax label with this collection of collaborations with stars both contemporary and not so, ranging from Estelle to the likes of Texan blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. I'm usually wary of these things – they so often lose focus or seem like vanity projects – but the standard remains high throughout, from neo-soul man Mayer Hawthorne's strong vocal on the opener and title track to the blues jam with Jones's son, Ted which closes the album. Anthony Hamilton's baritone croon on Gently is excellent, Vintage Trouble's Ty Taylor is the making of the catchiest number, Your Love Is No Love, and the vocal duet with Kori Withers on Watch You Sleeping is touching.
Booker T. Jones has certainly put his mark on modern pop music. As part of the legendary group Booker T. & the MG's, Memphis' first integrated band, and the house band at Stax Records in the 1960s, he pretty much was in at the ground floor of the invention of soul, backing classic soul hits by Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, William Bell, and many others, as well as generating iconic instrumental hits from the era like "Green Onions," "Time Is Tight," and numerous others with the MG's.
When you think of Hammond B3 organ in classic R&B, you think of Booker T. Jones, and his return to the Stax label features plenty of those instantly recognizable warbling pads and staccato chord jabs. While Sound The Alarm isn't completely retro, Jones delivers the classic feel his fans are looking for. Most of the album finds Jones in a funky throwback soul mood, with chunky drums and production touches occasionally nodding to hip-hop.
All relationships require work, but the friendship between Killer Mike and El-P looks easy. After first teaming up for 2012’s political noise-rap throwback masterpiece, R.A.P. Music, which saw Mike rapping with startling precision and pugnacity over El-P’s minimalist bomb shelter symphonies, the duo spent much of the next year taunting everyone with all the fun they were having.
The latest from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame organist Booker T. Jones could not be more timely: “Sound the Alarm” is the sound of summer. You can practically hear the sidewalk sizzling as the hydrant gushes onto the hot pavement during the festive block party jam “66 Impala,” featuring percussion flourishes from Sheila E. and Poncho Sanchez.
The recent reactivation of Stax Records has brought organist-producer Booker T. Jones back to the label that featured his sound on so many great recordings of the 1960s and '70s, including those by Otis Redding and Sam & Dave as well as his own albums, fronting Booker T. & the MG's. This album, produced chiefly by Jones and/or the Avila Brothers, has the hallmarks of those great Memphis sessions of yore — sultry organ work, a lithe rhythm section and lots of meaty horn accents — with touches that bring it comfortably into the 21st century.