At its best and most commercial, Stax Records combined earnest experimentation with a rigorous, down-home blues perspective. That air of sober discipline and workmanlike flair carries over into Steve Cropper and Felix Cavaliere’s Nudge It Up a Notch, which carries the Stax imprint (Concord Music Group recently revived the label) but was cut in Nashville. With Jon Tiven joining the two stars behind the boards, the results skirt revivalism in spots. But the eager, slightly jazz-inflected voice of former Rascals singer Cavaliere massages the material, while longtime Stax maestro Cropper’s guitar makes dirty slurs and high, bright comments on the action. “The coffee wasn’t on/And you were gone,” Cavaliere sings in the opener, “One of Those Days”; his organ answers, while the background vocals that threaten to turn Nudge into a modern New Orleans r&b record fill out the arrangement. Meanwhile, instrumentals such as “Full Moon Tonight” display Cropper’s genius for structural guitar; he also makes something out of the trills that dominate his solo on “Full Moon,” which Stanton Moore ought to take notice of next time he’s looking for material. You could complain that this pairing comes across slick in places, but these pros have found a way to strain the grease and keep the flavor.
Often in tandem with Cropper, Eddie Floyd wrote some of Stax’s most emblematic material, and some of its most atypical. Eddie Floyd Loves You teams him with Michael Dinallo and Ducky Carlisle, themselves fluent with various soul and blues greats. Floyd’s voice isn’t what it used to be, but the production slyly adds spare, country-soul grooves to classic material. “You’re So Fine,” a 1959 hit for Floyd’s Detroit group the Falcons, rocks and rolls, while ” ‘Til My Back Ain’t Got No Bone” is simply deadly: “Stumblin’ through the city/Stoppin’ every girl I see,” Floyd sings. He sounds like a country boy making his way down backstreets toward a redemption that turns out to be a mirage, and that’s as true to the Stax aesthetic as you’d care to get in this day and age.