Random record reviews: Norah Jones, Post Malone, Booker T.

(Above: “Die For You” is a stand-out track on Post Malone’s third album. Hollywood’s Bleeding takes a moment to get going, but is fun once it does.)

By Joel Francis

Norah Jones – Pick Me Up Off the Floor

Although Norah Jones’ second album in as many years shares many similarities with last year’s Begin Again, Pick Me Up Off the Floor hangs together better as a cohesive album.

Working once again with a revolving cast of musicians, Jones maintains a consistent mood and tempo throughout the album. The joy in these performances lie in their subtleties, like the pedal steel guitar on “Heartbroken, Day After,” soulful B3 organ on “Flame Twin” or horns on the gospel song “To Live.” It’s not hard to get lost in the interplay between drummer Brian Blade and upright bass player Chris Thomas on “Hurts to Be Alone.”

Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s idiosyncratic guitar playing and unique phrasing are evident throughout “I’m Alive,” one of the best songs on the album. Ultimately, however, these nuances aren’t distinct enough to win Jones any new fans. The mid-tempo pop/jazz singer may need to be picked up off the floor, but only the most devoted fans will be swept off their feet.

Post Malone – Hollywood’s Bleeding

For an established pop artist, Post Malone’s third album takes a while before the hooks arrive. There are a few flourishes of energy – DaBaby’s rap on “Enemies,” the bridge on “Allergic” – before “A Thousand Bad Times,” the fifth song, finally delivers something to sing along to.

From there, Hollywood’s Bleeding starts building momentum. “Circles” is perfect for a night at the club (whenever that can be a thing again), while Future and Halsey steal the spotlight on “Die for Me.” Ozzy Osborne and Travis Scott take over on the arena rock anthem “Take What You Want.” In danger of disappearing on his own album, Malone grabs center stage on “I’m Gonna Be” and “Staring at the Sun” (with SZA). This sets up the massive hit “Sunflower,” which appeared in the animated Spider-Man film.

At 17 tracks and 51 minutes, Hollywood’s Bleeding could benefit from some editing, but the genre mashup, something-for-everyone approach winds up delivering plenty of fun.

Booker T. Jones – Note by Note

As leader of Booker T. and the MGs, Booker T. Jones helped define the sound of the Stax label and southern soul. Trust me, you’ve heard him play even if you don’t recognize the name. Now Jones is back with his first album since 2013 revisiting the songs and music that built his reputation.

Note by Note jumps out of the speakers with “Cause I Love You,” a duet between Evvie McKinney and Joshua Ledet. From there, Jones takes the mic for the swampy blues “Born Under a Bad Sign” before turning the singing over to Ayanna Irish on the playful “B-A-B-Y.”

Regardless of the style or the singer, Jones’ distinctive B3 organ holds the performances together. His talent is especially evident on seemingly disparate performances of the gospel number “Precious Lord” and Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon” (delivered with a distinct south-of-the-border feel).

Two new songs close out the album, but by then the deal has long been sealed. Fans of the Colemine and Daptone labels will find a lot to love here, but any fan of sweet soul music should celebrate Note by Note.

Keep reading:

Review – Booker T.

Another Side of Norah Jones

“Stax Does the Beatles”

Social Distancing Spins – Day 20

By Joel Francis

O.V. Wright – Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose (1977) O.V. Wright is the greatest soul singer you’ve never heard. Wright had some chart success in the mid-to-late 1960s, but a prison term for narcotics sidelined his career. When Wright got out he cut several albums for Hi Records, the home of Al Green and Anne Peebles. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose was Wright’s first record post-incarceration and it has the pent-up power of a man finally able to cut loose. Hi Rhythm, the studio house band, provides the perfect support throughout. The album is barely longer than half an hour, but it is consistently superb throughout. Into Something-Can’t Shake Loose is definitely work seeking out.

Wu-Tang Clan – Iron Flag (2001) Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) is Staten Island hip hop collective’s best album, but Iron Flag is my favorite. Released just a few months after the 9/11 attacks, every MC is on point here to protect their city. Running under an hour at 12 tracks and no skits, this is a focused, fierce Clan. Blaxploitation horns power “In the Hood” (which starts after a brief introduction) and the single “Uzi (Pinky Ring),” a track so strong it threatens to jump out of the speakers and start a fight. Method Man’s “Y’all Been Warned” pivots on a simple keyboard and guitar sample. Boasting has long been a staple of hip hop, but the braggadocio here takes on a deeper significance in the wake of 9/11. Or as Ghostface Killah puts it on “Rules:” “Together we stand, divided we fall/Mr. Bush sit down, I’m in charge of the war.” We should be so lucky as to have him in charge.

Booker T. and the MGs – McLemore Avenue (1970) The Fab Four cast a long shadow. Here the Stax Records house band – and hitmakers on their own – pay tribute to Abbey Road by naming their album after the street where Stax resides. The album is three long medleys and a stand-alone cover of “Something.” A 15-minute track comprising the final medley on Abbey Road kicks things off. It’s a bit odd to hear “The End” so early in the album but ultimately not a big deal. The second side encompasses roughly the rest of Abbey Road’s flip side, with the exception of the closing medley that opens McLemore Avenue. Got that? The musicianship is stellar. Booker T.’s organ does most of the heavy lifting with the melodies, but Steve Cropper’s guitar always comes in at the right moments to help out. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson is equally superb. If you like the Beatles and/or classic R&B, this is the album for you.

Chris Bell – I Am the Cosmos (1992) The Memphis power pop and cult band Big Star only made three albums during their initial run, losing band members after each release. Guitarist and singer Chris Bell was the first to exit. I Am the Cosmos collects the songs Bell made in the mid-‘70s after leaving Big Star, with many tracks featuring his old bandmates. The only song on this collection that came out during Bell’s lifetime is the title number, which never came near the charts but grew so large in the Big Star lore that the band started performing it when they regrouped in the 1990s. The music is raw and vulnerable and in addition to displaying the power pop chops of Big Star also points the way to introspective indie rock bands like Death Cab for Cutie. For proof, look no further than “Speed of Sound,” used masterfully in the film Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist. Big Star’s Third is hailed as the group’s lost masterpiece, but in many ways I Am the Cosmos is just as important and more accessible.

Elton John – Honky Chateau (1972) As Elton John’s first No. 1 album, Honky Chateau helped tip the pianist toward stardom. Everyone knows “Rocket Man” but the rest of the songs may be even better. “Hercules” is folk pop in the vein of early Cat Stevens, while “Slave” veers toward country. The deceptively bouncy “I Think I’m Going to Kill Myself” hides a lyric so caustic and cynical that Elvis Costello would blush. Ballads “Mellow” and “Salvation” are the type of song that would become overblown productions in a few years. They are great here in standard rock band arrangements.

The true gem for me is the wonderful “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters,” which I first heard in Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous. Yeah, I know I’m not breaking any stereotypes about music nerds here. Want to come over and help me arrange my albums autobiographically? We can look for inside jokes in the liner notes.

Review – Booker T.

(Above: Booker T. Jones performs “Time Is Tight” in Dublin earlier this year.)

By Joel Francis

Soul legend Booker T. Jones’ concert Sunday night at Knucklehead’s was the tale of two shows. The first half of Jones’ two-hour set was solid, if unspectacular and marred by sound and equipment issues. After a 20-minute recess to fix the technical problems, the band returned rejuvenated and tore through powerful readings from the MGs catalog.

Jones’ organ playing has always been more powerful than his singing voice, but both his instruments were drowned out by Troy Gonyea’s guitar. The quartet started off fine with the opening trio of songs from this year’s “Potato Hole” album, but it was difficult to hear Jones’ between-song banter and his singing on “Born Under A Bad Sign” was inaudible.

That song earned a few scowls toward the soundboard and a staff member hurriedly setting up a second mic at the organ. Jones took a mulligan on that one and ran it through again with somewhat improved results. The sound problems followed Jones across the stage when he strapped on a black Stratocaster to pay tributes to his friends and fellow Stax legends Isaac Hayes and Otis Redding.

Hayes and David Porter’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’” was marred by feedback that made “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” unlistenable. After the sound crew proved unable to fix what Jones identified as “440 or 360 frequency” hum, the band took a technical break.

With the sound fixed, the band emerged a new beast. Jones’ organ was crisp and each instrument was more distinct. The band seemed happier, too, and made up for the false start. New song “Native New Yorker” sounded like a lost Allman Brothers track and Drummer Darian Gray updated a couple MGs tracks, including “Hip Hug Her” and “Hang ‘Em High” with freestyle rap vocals. “Melting Pot” built slowly over Gonyea’s chicken-scratch guitar before exploding at the gospel chorus. The 10-minute reading gave the band plenty of time to stretch out and play off each other.

The main set ended with a thunderous “Time is Tight” that opened with organ and bass before the rest of the band kicked down the door. The band scattered after that song, leaving Jones on his organ bench talking to fans and posing for pictures. The musicians reappeared for a spontaneous, powerful roll through Jones’ wonderful, upbeat arrangement of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”

Knucklehead’s was about three-quarters full of appreciative fans who didn’t hesitate to jump to their feet and crowd the dance floor. “Green Onions” drew a big crowd in front of the stage early, and nearly everyone was on their feet for the second half of the show.  It had been a long time since Jones last played Kansas City, and everyone in the house – musicians included – were graciously patient and willing to make sure the evening turned out all right. The ultimately spectacular evening was well worth the wait.

Setlist: Pound It Out, She Breaks, Warped Sister, Green Onions, Born Under A Bad Sign, Hold On, I’m Comin’, Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, Potato Hole, Hip Hug Her, New York Native, Melting Pot, Hang ‘Em High, Time Is Tight, (encore) Hey Ya