For those not familiar with the downtown cult favorites, the music they make is the aural equivalent of being drunk, and alcohol famously makes up much of the band's lyrical subject matter. The closest you can get to a comparison is Frank's Wild Years-era Tom Waits, combined with traditional jazz, or perhaps a dance band in one of Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls stories. It's slick, seamy and hip with vocalist Ryan Scully's Edward G. Robinson/Jimmy Cagney voice rhyming like a carnival barker tying it all together.
Live, Morning 40's shows are legendary, in large part because of the meandering, horn-heavy jams that fill huge chunks of each song like a drunk with a story to tell. On the record, for the most part they wouldn't be missed, but creepy blues like "Bottom Shelf Blues" and "Ninth Ward" are tight, vintage Morning 40 -- vaudeville shuffle meets drunken stumble in a great hybrid of indigenous New Orleans sound, from brass band to hip-hop. -- Alison Fensterstock
When Bobby Rush sings, "You got four men driving your car in the daytime / four men driving it at night" in "Ride in My Automobile," he's not referring to a woman and her Toyota. He's dirty-minded, but good naturedly so. As a result, the tracks are fun rather than smutty -- and he knows how to finish a joke. In the song, he doesn't have issues with possessiveness; he's afraid that with all those other "drivers" around, "you might get me killed."
Years spent playing the Chitlin Circuit showing the crowd a good time shaped Rush's funky blues. His live show is often hilarious and a little bit rude, so if songs aren't exercises in extending double entendres, they tell stories of frustration. "My woman asked me for a hundred dollars," he sings, "and I didn't have but ninety-nine." The most serious, lowdown blues on the album is "Voodoo Man," and even it is driven by a twist. In the chorus, he realizes, "This woman done voodoo'ed the voodoo man."
As good humored as the songs are, they aren't jokes. With Alvin Youngblood Hart joining him on guitar on the album, the interplay between guitars is subtle. On the cover of Percy Mayfield's "River's Invitation," Hart switches back and forth between chicken scratch and a sinuous lead line while Charlie Jenkins' drum pattern is just an accent or two from second-line funk. Jenkins settles into a parade pattern for Rush's harmonica-driven "Saints Gotta Move," a hybrid of "Saints Go Marching In" and "You Gotta Move." Like much of Folk Funk, the idea sounds a little hokey, but it works. -- Alex Rawls
The Tipping Point
As the Roots try to grow from a significant minor act to reach wider audiences with The Tipping Point, the line separating commercial appeal and "keeping it real" is blurred. The synthesized effects seem forced and give hardcore fans plenty to castigate, especially on pop-structured compositions like "Don't Say Nuthin'," which sound as though they were written for car commercials. Those fans will also lament lyrics that are occasionally hackneyed, like those on "Why," in which Black Thought says, "Some people chasin' a dream / others just chasin' a high." However, neo-soul numbers like "Stay Cool" and the jam that starts nine minutes into "Why" are mainstream touches the band attempts without sacrificing artistic integrity.
The group's struggle to accept its new role in mainstream music is balanced by its natural ability to cross genres and discuss hot issues without bandwagoning their causes. Black Thought avoids stereotypical Bush-bashing in his analysis of the war, questioning circumstances so that listeners can decide on their own. For instance, "Guns Are Drawn" questions whether we could live without "phones or pagers / No Kinko's no FedEx and no ATM's," which suggests that our luxuries create an idealistic view of the world. This is followed by fears of U.S. hegemony: "They finna write another Patriot Act again." Black Thought's raps about life during wartime challenge Generation X's apathy and ask for action that will "show 'em we can make it." Whether popular audiences think and act for themselves will determine whether or not mainstream audiences will accept the Roots. -- Reuben Brody