Nudge It Up a Notch is a collaborative effort by Booker T. & the MG's/ Blues Brothers guitarist and songwriter Steve Cropper and former Rascals organist, songwriter, and frontman Felix Cavaliere. It was recorded at Jon Tiven's Hormone Studio in Nashville, and released on Stax. This trio co-wrote most all of the tunes together, then hired the great drummer Chester Thompson (who else do you know who could play drums with Frank Zappa, Genesis, and Frank Black?) and his pal, former Impressions bassist and musical director Sammy Louis "Shake" Anderson. Backing vocalists Mark Williams and N'nandi Bryant round out the band. David Z. mixed the sessions, which were co-produced by Cropper, Cavaliere, and Tiven.
So what's it sound like? It sounds like Felix Cavaliere fronting a completely killer Southern soul band! Their musical structures come from timeless sources of blues, R&B, gospel, and modern funky reggae. The opening cut, a steamy, gritty broken love song, simply choogles its way along a simple breakbeat-driven vamp in a minor key. Cavaliere's voice hasn't lost one iota of its range or its expressiveness since the Rascals disbanded 35 years ago. Here he offers a sultry, emotionally wrought call and response with his chorus. Cropper offers stunning blues fills and a solo above the B-3 and rhythm section. The tune is a signature in a sense, because the tunes themselves are solid, beautifully written, and smartly arranged. But it's not only the cookers that come off this way -- check the very next track, "If It Wasn't for Loving You," which nods to "My Girl" for its verse melody, but it's pure Cavaliere in the tag before the chorus. It's a ballad with near doo wop backing vocals and Cropper doing his slippery chord riffs to center the tune. The bassline is a tight stroll along the snare line, and Cavaliere's organ soars above the top. The instrumentals come off seamlessly as well. Check the nocturnal gritty soul-blues shuffle of "Full Moon Tonight" for proof. Cropper gets to let the high strings cut and slither. The reverbed backing chords are all played in shimmering tension as Cavaliere and the rhythm section bubble and pop underneath.
Despite each of these songs being a gem, some production elements in the sound -- in a couple of places -- are a tad strange: on "Impossible" the seemingly looped tablas pull the listener's attention a bit from Cavaliere's gorgeous vocal. The hard funky loops and rap in "Making the Time Go Faster" would have been better served without a synth and using organic hand percussion on top of Thompson's breaks. "Jamaica Delight," a Caribbean-flavored instrumental, has slightly cheesy keyboards, but the tune works anyway because of Cropper's razored guitar inventions. Yet these are minor quibbles -- this album is so groove-laden and loaded with honest, uncontrived songs that minor flubs hardly matter. Just before the record's end, "Imperfect World" uses a dubby, modern reggae cum R&B confection that's so infectious, lean, and punchy that it could make the Police turn green with envy. Nudge It Up a Notch is a top-flight collaborative effort by a veritable soul supergroup that is vital and astonishingly creative, and offers plenty of proof that soul music is very much alive as a force of 21st century musical expression. This set is one of the great surprises of 2008, and further evidence of Concord's genuine commitment to the revamped Stax imprint.