Booker T. Jones: he’s THE soul man.

There’s a preoccupation with place all over Booker T. Jones’ new album, The Road From Memphis. The city exists as an almost-magical hub of life, excitement and potential, filled with millions of individuals of limitless creativity and imagination. Memphis – the city of Booker T’s birth and the epicentre of his amazing career – obviously looms large, but so too does New York, where this album was recorded with The Roots in just a few short sessions.

“I’m fascinated with the energy centres of the world,” Booker tells me, from his new home in Hollywood. “I think I first became aware of it when I realised that all the Greek philosophers and writers were concentrated in one place, and one time; Socrates, Aristotle… Why does that happen? And the same thing happened in San Francisco and in Memphis in the ‘60s… It happened in Philadelphia with Teddy Pendergrass, and Gamble and Huff. And it happened again in Detroit, with Motown. There was just so much creative energy in one place – Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, Mary Wells, Diana Ross – and it fascinates me. I don’t know how to explain it – it seems like there are wells of energy that come up in music in different eras and in different places, and it establishes a style, and the style lives for a long time,” he says. “And it happened to me directly. I was a part of one of those energy centres in Memphis, and it was just fascinating.”

The ‘energy centre’ he’s referring to was the legendary Stax Records, and Booker T. was there from even before the start. As a sixteen-year-old, Booker played saxophone on Rufus & Carla Thomas’ ‘Cause I Love You’ – the first hit for Satellite Records, which was renamed ‘Stax’ within twelve months. Booker was at Stax throughout the 1960s, writing songs for Otis Redding, Mavis Staples and Eddie Floyd, including Albert King’s ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ – one of the classics of the genre. As well as writing, though, Booker T. & The MGs were Stax’ de facto house band, playing on literally hundreds of hits, including ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’, ‘Soul Man’, ‘Walking The Dog’ and their own enduring classic ‘Green Onions’. As a group, they almost single-handedly defined the sound of soul.
It was hard work, though. Like Motown, Stax had teams of songwriters working all day, every day, under tremendous pressure to produce the next smash hit. “We had a strict schedule of recording from 11-6,” Booker tells me, “but I have to say, thinking back on it, all of that was driven by the passion of the writers. They could have gone and got other jobs, [but] people loved what they were doing, and were just driven to it. Because it doesn’t make any practical sense at all, to try and be a songwriter,” he reasons. “[But Stax] was a great place to cultivate music, and a great environment. You had writers like David Porter and Isaac Hayes right next door, and that was the whole thing; it was a conversation, and the focus all the time was to get better. It was a beautiful environment, and it’s too bad that it couldn’t have continued – but business got in the way.”

That sort of relationship, that sort of dialogue, is a rare commodity, but it seems as though Booker found lively conversationalists in The Roots. Booker arrived in New York a couple of weeks before the recording of The Road From Memphis was due to begin, but both parties were so busy that they didn’t get a chance to meet up until they arrived at the studio. Still, there’s an ease to the partnership that comes across on record – the sort of innate understanding that usually takes years to develop. “I think that was fortunate,” Booker says, somewhat modestly. “They had listened to my music before, and they were fans, and they were comfortable in their own skin. [And their] musicianship is probably as high as I’ve experienced in a band. The Roots really know what they’re doing with music. And it’s not wishful thinking – they actually execute. You better be ready if you’re going to play with those guys.”

But there’s was another, equally important member of the group – and we’re not talking about Lou Reed, Sharon Jones, Jim James from My Morning Jacket or Matt Berninger from The National, all of whom feature on the album. The final piece of the puzzle was New York itself, a city which has always provided Booker with inspiration. “New York has been very strong for me, musically,” he explains. “Every time I’ve gone to New York I’ve got good energy. I remember we recorded Melting Pot [1971] in New York when I was so frustrated. I’d been trying to record in Los Angeles and in Memphis, and everything we did just sounded the same. And I just really needed to bust out and do something different – I thought it was going to drive me crazy. But then [in New York City] we came up with Melting Pot.

“The Bronx is amazing,” he says. “If you look at the amount of talent that has come out of that city, it’s just amazing. Everybody from Woody Allen, to Mark Twain, and so many actors, actresses, singers, writers – so many people come from one area. Why does that happen? How does that happen?” It might be that there’s something in the water – but it’s hardly a coincidence that Booker T. Jones finds extraordinary musicians and unspoken connections everywhere he goes. Perhaps it has more to do with the man himself.

Originally published in The Brag, Issue 432


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We Were Promised Jetpacks – In The Pit Of The Stomach

We Were Promised Jetpacks
In The Pit Of The Stomach
Fat Cat Records

A review of WWPJ’s debut These Four Walls remarked that singer Adam Thompson seems like he wouldn’t be able to buy a packet of cigarettes without it turning into some all-consuming emotional crisis. And although meant as a joke, it’s very true – WWPJ have a knack for making the mundane seem momentous.

It seems to be a particularly Scottish trait, one that labelmates Frightened Rabbit and The Twilight Sad have been doing for years. WWPJ overlap with the sound of both bands, although they beat the former for sheer epicness and have the edge on the latter for the strength of the emotions. There’s a touch of Mogwai (more Scots!) in the instrumental builds, but rather than their slowly-unfolding climaxes, WWPJ play everything with an almost punk energy, propelling the listener inescapably toward the crescendo.

But as terrific as the band are, it’s Thompson who’s their greatest weapon. His hushed, warm brogue whispers intimate nothings in your ear, drawing you into these small-scale dramas. His lyrics are more observational than oblique, but every so often they sum up a situation with devastating insight. And when the time comes to let loose, as he roars his betrayals over gigantic walls of sound, you can feel the catharsis – his and your own. There’s nothing on here quite so spectacular as ‘It’s Thunder & It’s Lightning’ from their debut, but there are plenty of hair-raising moments – ‘Act On Impulse’, ‘Sore Thumb’ and ‘Human Error’, especially.

WWPJ are sticking with their formula, but this album sees them taking the time to craft their songs, rather than just going straight for the jugular. An engrossing album that gets better with every listen.

Originally published in The Brag, Issue 432

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Lil’ Wayne – Tha Carter IV

Lil Wayne
The Carter IV
Young Money/ Universal

When Tha Carter III leaked two weeks before its release date, Lil’ Wayne shrugged it off and recorded an entirely new album from scratch – and that album has now sold nearly four million copies. Weezy is a prodigious talent and is always pushing boundaries, even when they are a spectacular failure (see Rebirth, his ‘rock’ album) – but much of Tha Carter IV seems restrained in a way that he never has been before, and is somewhat diminished as a result.

Tha Carter IV is probably his strongest album to date, actually working as a whole rather than a collection of singles. But the individual songs aren’t up to his usual standard, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Weezy seems bored with yet another song about sex, or weed, or sex and weed. While there is some variation in the instrumentals, Wayne’s vocals remain the same – full of tremendous wit and wordplay, but nonetheless limited by the couplet form he favours. He gets by on his way with words, but too often it’s the guest MCs who provide the real spark, with Tech N9ne, Andre 3000, Nas, Bun B and Busta Rhymes all showing up their host.

The best moments on this album occur when Weezy departs from the minimalist thuggery that we have come to expect, and instead tries a different style. ‘Abortion’ has an actual melody (!) and is lifted immeasurably by its gospel sample, while ‘She Will’ has extraordinary space behind it, allowing itself room to breathe, and sounding like the lost track from Kanye’s Fantasy.

Tha Carter IV is a really good listen as a whole, but lacking any genuinely standout tracks. Still, after a couple of really bad albums, it’s great to see Weezy F. Baby back doing what he does best.

Originally published in The Brag, Issue 431

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Rahzel – The Hip Hop Heavyweight

In about Year 7 or Year 8, my music class at high school was asked to pick a piece of music and give a speech about it, using pros and cons to explain what made particular tracks significant. I’d just been given a CD by my older brother, and it included ‘If Your Mother Only Knew’, by Rahzel. I will never forget the moment when the man who calls himself ‘The Undisputed Beatbox Champion Of The World’ breaks into his version of Aaliyah’s ‘If Your Girl Only Knew’, simultaneously singing the lyrics while playing the beat and the high-hat, with his mouth. It’s a live recording, and as the crowd erupted I turned around and saw the looks of wonder on the faces of my classmates; the crusty old dean still made me explain why it was awesome, but no one needed convincing. After that we all spent weeks passing contraband white earbuds around at lunchtime, trying to replicate the wizardry ourselves.

It might strike you as a bit odd that the master of the technique doesn’t really like introducing himself as a ‘beatboxer’ anymore. As it turns out it’s not a semantic distinction but a tactical decision, after spending years trying to explain what he did for a living… “To the average person, or someone who isn’t into urban music, ‘Human Beatbox’ throws them a bit, and they don’t really understand what you do,” Rahzel tells me over the phone, on the eve of his upcoming trip to Australia. “So to get over that I coined the phrase ‘Vocal Percussionist’ – and people totally get it… Plus, if you meet the wife’s parents and they ask what you do for a living, you need something a little more professional”.

It makes sense that Rahzel wouldn’t want to be defined by a label that someone else came up with. Throughout his career his creative output has been extraordinarily varied, working, performing and touring with artists including The Roots, The Who, Jay-Z, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and BB King. He brought beatboxing to acoustic chillout mixes the world over on Ben Harper’s ‘Steal My Kisses’, and features prominently on Bjork’s weird and wonderful a capella album Medulla. (“When I realised the album was becoming a vocal record, the musical fascist in me decided using any MCs or vocal percussionists would be too cheesy,” Bjork said in a Popmatters interview at the time. “I changed my mind when I saw Rahzel freestyle a whole Kraftwerk track without pausing for breath.” He’s been known to have that effect on people.)

His approach is similar in many ways to that of Mike Patton. The Faith No More frontman always had eclectic influences, and his countless projects – including Mr. Bungle, Fantomas, Tomahawk, his bizarre hip hop lounge album Lovage, and his album of orchestral Italian pop songs from the 50s and 60s – serve as an inspiration for Rahzel, who collaborated with him on the Peeping Tom project. “Yeah, Mike Patton’s a very good friend of mine,” Rahzel says. “I love the guy. That’s a really strong bond, built over the years, and he’s been a big supporter of the beatbox. And he puts his own spin on the beatbox – so for me, hats off to Mike Patton.”

Rahzel explains his affinity with Patton as a philosophical connection; both keep moving forward like a shark, constantly seeking out new ideas and new things to try. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always interesting. “What he does with his label, and the different artists that he works with, and the different bands that he’s involved with, and the different collaborations and genres that he participates in – for me, we think the same. I think that’s why our bond is so tight, because we think the same way,” he says. “We don’t want to be stuck in one situation, we want to be able to move around and feel free.” This isn’t just true of Rahzel’s music – he also has ambitions to become the first beatboxer in the world who owns his own label. And it sounds like a pretty interesting setup. “I want to focus on people with incredible talent,” he explains. “At the end of the day it’s their vocal ability, whether that’s speaking, singing or imitating instruments… I want to focus on the vocals, but it’s going to be a wide range.”

Rahzel is coming to Australia for the third annual Platform Hip Hop Festival – this year expanded to a month-long celebration of all things hip hop, running at Carriageworks from March 12. He’ll be performing as The Magnificents, with two titans of underground hip hop – DJ JS-1 and Supernatural. The latter is widely recognised as one of the best freestyle MCs around, and also happens to be the Guinness World Record holder for continuous freestyling. His time? About nine hours. And no, that’s not a typo. Even Rahzel doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. “It’s always a surprise,” he says, of working with Supernatural. “Most of the show is improv – I’m looking forward to it because I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

For all his relentless forward impetus, Rahzel is always quick to recognise those who paved the way for him when he was starting out. For him, a large part of his role as the chronicler of hip hop involves continuing the legacies of Biz Markie and Jam Master Jay. “I want to be that beatbox encyclopaedia,” he says. “When you see me on stage, that’s what you’re getting – not just Rahzel beatboxing in to a mic; you’re getting history. I’m like a time capsule – I was there! You were a little baby, or you weren’t even born, but I was there!”

“It’s like, y’know, Back To The Future,” he continues. “I’m like a time machine. I was there in the beginning, and I’m here now, so that you know what was happening even though you weren’t around.” For a trip through the past, the present and the future of hip hop, head down to Platform Hip Hop Festival.

Originally published in The Brag, Issue 403

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Maxine Kauter Band – Alibech The Hermit

Maxine Kauter Band
Alibech The Hermit
Self- released

The annual meetings of the Bluesy-Folky-Pop Singers Collective have always been well-attended affairs. Particularly the Australian chapter, where currently our cup runneth over. Blasko, Bowditch, Throsby, and Julia Stone dominate the national scene, while splendid Sydney up-and-comers like Emma Davis and Girl Most Likely jostle with Mia Dyson and Adalita Srsen for the limited airspace leftover. Sydney’s Maxine Kauter joins the ranks with her debut album, a modest seven-track affair that manages to pack some blissful moments into its brisk 28 minutes.

More badass and bluesy than girlish whimsy, Kauter is backed by a damn fine band that fleshes out the very fine bones of her songwriting. Kauter proves herself a versatile performer, by turns breathy troubadour and badass guitar hero. But the release is credited to the Maxine Kauter Band, which tells you a little about the interplay here – because while the softer tracks are lovely, and both Kauter’s lyrics and voice are full of character and depth, it is the rockier, full band numbers that really grab your attention.

‘My Maria’ is a slow burner that manages to subtly accumulate tension before letting it all go in a sublime blaze of guitar and organ; ‘Inside Down’ manages a similar feat with a more conspicuous crescendo, but it is no less exhilarating once it finally takes off – but it’s gone much too soon. I can imagine that these songs could really soar live, if given a little room to breathe and to expand.

Kauter & Co. put a very promising foot forward; this debut is worth far more than the $0 that they’re charging.

Originally published in The Brag, Issue 403

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The Dears – Degeneration Street

The Dears
Degeneration Street
Dangerbird Records/ Albert Music

Fans have a tendency to get very strange about The Dears. Following 2003’s terrific No Cities Left, NME touted them as “probably the best new band in the world” – and I once read a review of their live show that declared it “the sonic equivalent of seeing the face of God.” …But to be fair to both reviewers, The Dears are fucking terrific.

Frontman Murray Lightburn has described The Dears’ sound to me as “heavy, thinking man’s rock”, and there’s plenty of that here. But more often than not, that heaviness is thematic, rather than sonic. Most of these songs are grand anthems, but the lyrics are something akin to The National’s tendency to intellectualise the minutiae of grown-up relationships, the pitfalls of married life, and the inevitable torpor and stifling misery that can come from too long in suburbia. So much of this album is quiet desperation – like the stunning, plaintive cry of ‘Lamentation’, or the longing of ‘Galactic Tides’.

But there’s some serious rock on this album, too: from sexy, slinky, opener ‘Omega Dog’ to ‘Blood’, probably the dirtiest song The Dears have ever written. It’s a wonderful mix of the bold and the badass – every time you start to worry that they have been lost to the soundscape, they come crashing back with a biting riff. Indeed, the only real complaint I have is that most of the truly memorable songs are within the first handful, so the back end does drag a little.

If Arcade Fire weren’t so damn precious about everything, they might sound a little something like this. Another top effort from one of the most under-appreciated acts around.

Origainlly published in The Brag, Issue 399

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The Black Eyed Peas – The Beginning

The Black Eyed Peas
The Beginning
Interscope/ Universal

There is so much to be sad about The Black Eyed Peas’ shift from a genuinely talented underground hip-hop act to one of the biggest, most shameless pop groups in the world. If you have never heard either of their first two albums (Behind The Front and Bridging The Gap), you won’t be able to reconcile the sounds coming out of your speakers with the personnel involved – or at least their post-Fergie incarnation. But for all the criticism that gets levelled at her, the real problem here is that chose money over respect. And he discovered house music.

Because while they were doing the Top 40 hip-pop thing, at the very least they would build a song around the sample; ‘Pump It’ was a pretty basic R&B track, but it was propelled by that great riff from ‘Misirlou’, which gave it real vibrancy. The last two albums, on the other hand, have been dominated by gigantic house beats compelling everyone to dance, so the actual words you are singing don’t matter at all. That’s why we end up with couplets like “I’m a lover not a fighter/Loved on a dyke turned her to a dick liker”.

Even the music is just so basic – not to mention hugely predictable. It is real lowest-common-denominator stuff, for people who demand no more of their music than something to party to. Which is fine for what it is – but it’s so much less than what it could be.

You can’t blame The Beginning for achieving exactly what it sets out to do, but I can’t bring myself to reward it for clearing such a low bar. Not even with half a star. It just makes me too sad.

Originally published in The Brag, Issue 396

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