Booker T. Jones hasn't released a solo album in two decades, so it's only fitting his return to the studio is a little extravagant.
Potato Hole, Jones' new record, finds him back in charge and backed with a formidable, if unconventional, rhythm section comprised of Neil Young and Drive-By Truckers.
While Jones' soulful style rubbed off a little on the rockers who joined him for this record, a little of the inverse is true as well. With the combined talents of Young and the Truckers forming the rhythm section of this combo, this is the closest Jones has ever come to straight-ahead rock. The dirty distortion on the Truckers' rhythm guitar riffs, for example, is a Southern rock staple.
Jones has always been a wizard with the Hammond B3 organ, and he's back at it on Potato Hole. The instrument, which was discontinued in the '70s, has all but died from modern music. It's even rarer, then, that a B3 is the lead instrument in a recording.
The B3 has no dynamic control. That is, the notes Jones plays never get louder or softer the way vocals do. It makes the transition from listening to vocal-fronted music to Potato Hole rough, since Jones' organ is takes on the role of singer on these tracks. It works well on some tracks but sounds like elevator music on others. At those times, it's Young and the Truckers who salvage the soul buried in the compositions.
Jones and Truckers frontman Patterson Hood are bound by their Southern soul session roots. It only makes sense that Jones would team up with the Truckers for an album. Jones also backed Young on a number of recordings over the years. This time, though, he's the frontman.
The connection between the Truckers and Jones goes back to the '60s. Starting in the beginning of that decade, Jones spent years as the leader of the Stax Records house band, Booker T and the MGs. The MGs scored a gigantic hit with "Green Onions" in 1962. The band also played on essentially every hit to come out of the record label, including Sam & Dave's "Soul Man" and Stax defined the Southern soul sound.
Hood is the son of David Hood, a Southern soul session player. The elder Hood played on a number of recordings by famous soul singers, including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, as a member of The Swampers.
The members of Drive-By Truckers have previously tried their hands as soulful session musicians. The group backed Bettye LaVette on her 2007 release, Scene of the Crime. Though the band has gained a reputation as something of a modern-day Lynyrd Skynyrd, the connections between Southern rock and soul are many (see "Sweet Home Alabama" for one prominent example).The band proved on LaVette's album that it had plenty of soul, and that's clear here again in the funky basslines. Young's presence, meanwhile, is understated. His bluesy leads always stay respectfully behind Jones' organ, contributing to the music while remembering who's the leader.
One of the album's highlights is a cover of OutKast's "Hey Ya." It's as strange a choice as it seems, and Jones' rendition is almost unrecognizable as the original song. However, it makes a good jumping off point for anyone who's unfamiliar with Jones' past work since it's his personal spin on a contemporary tune.
"She Breaks" is a sunny, summery slice of soul. It's enjoyable, but leaves a lingering question: Wouldn't this have sounded even better with Otis Redding singing a smooth-as-butter lead vocal? Unfortunately, it's a question that'll never be answered.
"Native New Yorker" starts with a grungy guitar part that could have been lifted from one of Young's songs. "Warped Sister" spirals into a cowbell-propelled breakdown that would make Mountain proud.
Despite its leanings toward rock, Potato Hole doesn't find Jones taking too many chances. Rather, it's more like a solid jam session with an all-star cast.
Download: "She Breaks"