Booker T. and the MG’s are the kind of instrumental virtuosos who don’t make you say, “Wow,” so much as offer an appreciative “yeah.” Gaining fame as the Stax/Volt house band accompanying such titans of ’60s soul as Otis Redding and Sam and Dave, the group showed similarly impeccable taste on its own instrumental hits, eschewing flashy solos for full-bodied interpretations. On the band’s first album in more than 15 years, the style remains the same — and remarkably fresh.
The group’s typical strategy is to use the juicy keyboards of Booker T. Jones to define a melody atop the supple rhythms of guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummers Steve Jordan (who has replaced the late, great Al Jackson) and James Gadson, who plays on three songs. Cropper contributes finely sculpted guitar solos — dig his rockabilly ride on “Cruisin'” and the spidery acoustic break on “Slip Slidin'” — but his renown rests in the rhythmic snap of his wrist.
Instrumental music is always a tough sell on the pop charts, so bands typically look for a commercial hook by interpreting familiar melodies. On That’s the Way It Should Be, the group strikes out with two melodically spare rock songs — Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” — but hits home runs with a pair of evocative soul tunes, the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)” and Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile”. But originals written by the band like the tropical “Slip Slidin'” and the automotive “Cruisin'” make the collection more than just a nostalgic encore — it’s a reaffirmation of the enduring group sound.
The music of Booker T. and the MG’s is rarely in your face; rather, the thrill is in the small moments — like the way Jones gives his Hammond organ a little more juice midway through the first verse of “Just My Imagination” or hearing Cropper energize “Slip Slidin'” with particularly piquant rhythmic fills. And it’s the way those subtle moves contribute to an organic whole that’s made Booker T. and the MG’s the most accomplished instrumental group in the history of rock and soul.