Boz Scaggs, ‘Memphis’ – Album Review
The muted tones, occasionally punched by brass or hi-hat, on Boz Scaggs’ ‘Memphis’ should sound familiar to R&B fans. They’re the same warm, subtle sounds found on soul recordings made by Al Green and other artists at Memphis’ Royal Studio in the 1970s. Green’s producer, Willie Mitchell, drew a casual, inviting timbre from the room that gave Green’s classic songs their distinctive hue. Scaggs, recording at Royal Studio with producer Steve Jordan, conjures a similar sound on ‘Memphis.’
Scaggs’ first album in five years looks back on ‘70s southern soul with a dozen songs that adapt to their surroundings. Memphis, the city, is all over ‘Memphis,’ the album, steering the music’s subtle shades in this direction or that while never losing the driving force: Scaggs’ bluesy voice, which is still in top shape. Listen to the way he drops into the music on the opening ‘Gone Baby Gone’ like a soft-speaking ghost who wants to fill you in on his sad, lonely story. It’s expert timing by an artist who’s made a career out of this sort of thing.
The songs, for the most part, stay away from the obvious. Brook Benton’s 1970 hit ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’ is here; so is the 1920s traditional blues song ‘Corrina, Corrina.’ And the Moments’ ‘70s soul classic ‘Love on a Two Way Street’ (the song Jay-Z and Alicia Keys sampled on their monster hit ‘Empire State of Mind’) gets a soft, laidback reading.
Instead, ‘Memphis’ loads up on obscurities, giving Scaggs and band plenty of room to play around with arrangements. The relatively busy ‘Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl’ stands out (Mitchell never would have aired out the mix this much), and the elegant cover of Steely Dan’s ‘Pearl of the Quarter’ is bathed in strings and soulful organ.
But ‘Memphis’’ real star is Royal Studio, which transports the songs back to the ‘70s. ‘So Good to Be Here,’ a deep cut from Green’s 1973 album ‘Livin’ for You,’ is a faithful replication of Mitchell’s characteristic production, and ‘Can I Change My Mind,’ a Top 5 hit for Tyrone Davis in 1969, follows a similar path. At times ‘Memphis’ is so wedded to its old-school design that it doesn’t really have much of a personality. Why listen to Boz Scaggs do Al Green when you can just listen to ‘Call Me’? It’s borrowed style, for sure. But Scaggs has earned the right.