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. Even if you wish that Booker T’s return to his classic label corresponded with an equally classic sound sporting old school methods of production, the pristine Sound The Alarm is, overall, a fun listen that doesn’t represent Booker T’s return as much as it does a rebirth, for better and for worse.
From the start, you know what you’re in for on Sound The Alarm, as safe, but fun contemporary soul poster boy Hawthorne’s voice enters after a kickass intro, ripe with scratching, a funky bass line, and a high-pitched electric guitar riff. The Hawthorne-featuring title track is essentially exemplary of the album’s main characteristic itself: it’s filled with talented musicians showing off their musical capabilities without risks, much to the chagrin of music elitists but to the utmost approval of purists. More sultry and generally better is the Luke James-featuring All Over The Place, which sports an ideal balance between a classic sound and newfound, youthful vigor.
The album’s most satisfying moments are instrumental and come from when Booker T uses his organ to shout back to his early ’60s days, as on the instrumental Fun, a track that’s exactly what its title suggests, even if it’s not as obviously funky or danceable as the more pop-orientated songs on Sound The Alarm. Similarly, Feel Good features Booker T playing the organ behind minimal, repeated lyrical refrains: a man percussively saying, “Oh!” and a chorus of female vocalists crooning the title of the song. While titles like Fun and Feel Good may at first suggest a lack of originality or trite subject matter, the two songs are so effective because they indeed put the listener in a happy trance, one that’s soothing but not dominant enough to the point where the listener refrains from picking out the instrumental subtleties that make Booker T’s music so pleasing. And perhaps the best song on Sound The Alarm is 66 Impala, in which Booker T features conguero Pongo Sanchez and percussionist Sheila Escovedo to create an organ-fuelled Latin jazz track that’s cross-genre collaboration at its best, Booker T doing his best impersonation of Santana organist Gregg Rolie.
But elsewhere on Sound The Alarm, Booker T’s collaborations sound exactly like you think they would. Gently, a gospel song featuring the excellent R&B singer Hamilton, is ear candy, but its purported spirituality doesn’t really send you to an otherworldly place, while Austin City Blues, featuring the talented but uninteresting guitarist Clark, Jr, is a relatively straightforward blues song that only makes you want to listen to grainy recordings of Muddy Waters’ Hoochie Coochie Man, Austin City Blues’ only really redeemable quality being Booker T’s virtuosic organ stabs. And the song with the most radio crossover potential is Can’t Wait, one that features Estelle. But unfortunately, her pop sensibilities do not mesh at all with Booker T’s classic soul, blues, and rock organs, and the song is a grating listen: you ultimately hope that Can’t Wait doesn’t follow the other popular mainstream soul songs that have somehow crept their way into the Top 40.
Overall, Sound The Alarm is an experiment that sometimes wildly succeeds, sometimes pleases, sometimes bores, and sometimes crashes and burns. And you have to give Booker T credit for trying. Hopefully he’ll take inspiration from what works on Sound The Alarm for his next records.