There's something wonderfully imperturbable about the organ playing of Booker T. Jones. Whether he's riding the keys like a raft on a river of honey, or greasing 'em up in the service of some nasty funk, Booker T's Hammond is always sweetly self-assured and squarely in the pocket, willfully oblivious to the passage of time or trend — it still whirs and burbles like it did when it helped put Stax Records on the map nearly 50 years ago. Relegated to a supporting role on 2009's guitar-centric Potato Hole, Booker T's Hammond now reclaims its proper place in the spotlight on his fourth solo album, The Road From Memphis.
A 14-track salute to the music (and enduring musical influence) of his hometown, The Road From Memphis was recorded by the Dap-Kings' Gabriel Roth and produced by The Roots' ?uestlove and Beck/Elliott Smith/Whigs knob-twiddler Rob Knopf (who also co-produced Potato Hole). It happily centers around what Jones has always done best: Nine of the tracks are organ-driven soul instrumentals, all of which adhere beautifully to Booker T & the MGs' uncluttered keys-guitar-bass-drums template. Legendary session guitarist Dennis Coffey drops in for "Everything Is Everything," "The Vamp" and "Harlem House," but all the instros — even the somewhat superfluous rendition of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" — operate on the same high (or is that low-down?) level.
The album's five vocal tracks are more of a mixed bag: The monotonous "Progress" features a wan blue-eyed soul vocal from Yim Yames (aka Jim James of My Morning Jacket), while Lou Reed's croaking cameo on "The Bronx" sounds like he recorded it at his old-age home between spoonfuls of pureed carrots. The pairing of modern soul queen Sharon Jones with Matt Berninger of The National on "Representing Memphis" actually comes off better than it might sound on paper, but Booker T's sly vocal turn on "Down in Memphis" makes one wish that "Representing Memphis" had been a Jones-Jones duet. The real wild card of The Road From Memphis is found on the deluxe edition, a cover of "Just a Friend," wherein Biz Markie reprises his 1989 hit with backing from Booker T, the Roots, Sharon Jones and Berninger — and though it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the album, it's still a supremely enjoyable goof.