Praise the Lord, for soul music is back. Could this be the result of NSR’s highly successful show ‘The Funk & Soul Revue’? Probably not. Could it be the result of a re-discovery of the soul and R&B (in the proper sense of the term, that is, Rhythm & Blues) of the 60’s, 70’s and even the disco era? Most likely, yes. Today younger artists are looking back to the golden age of soul for inspiration, whilst older artists such as Daptone’s Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley are reaching greater audiences than they did back in the day. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, a new generation of soul music is under construction, capturing the days when decent groove was first created.
At the forefront of this revival has been 63-year old Lee Fields who, dubbed “Little JB” for his vocal similarities with the late Godfather of Soul, has released three superb LP’s on Brooklyn-based label Truth & Soul, the latest of which dropped last week entitled Emma Jean after his late Mother. His debut album on Truth & Soul, My World, reinvigorated his career as a solo artist, whilst pairing him with a young yet impressive ensemble of musicians who call themselves The Expressions has made for a great live act. The follow-up LP Faithful Man was received equally with praise and admiration, continuing in the formula of creating retro, yet bold and creative, soul music.
‘Emma Jean’, a more ambitious and more experimental album than ‘Faithful Man’, sees Fields return again to what I think is best described as “cry-yourself-to-sleep-at-night-soul” (although it is also perfectly suited to a late-night walk home from town, in the rain, alone). Fields’ songs combine his raw gutsy vocal power and deep emotional heartache into something quite brilliant. The opener sets the standard high for the rest of the LP; its shifting tempo features a Southern/Memphis-soul organ rift throughout, providing a bluesy foundation to the soulful sound. Throughout the album, Fields’ emotionally charged, raw, gruff vocals dominate over the brilliant backing provided by his younger-backing band, demonstrated on the album’s first single “Magnolia”. “Eye to Eye” also employs this formula with great success, with Fields pleading to his lover to not walk away in spite of their recent fight; but who could turn their back away from a man with such a powerful and growling voice?
For all the impressive vocals displayed by Fields, The Expressions must also take their share of the credit for the success of ‘Emma Jean’ and its predecessors. Their approach is mighty impressive, somehow managing to re-visit the soul music of the past without simply re-creating it and becoming bogged-down by nostalgia and imitation. Take “Standing by Your Side”, one of the finer songs on this strong album – Fields vocals ride the tempo changes with gutsy ease, whilst the backing instrumentation is simply top-notch, complete with gritty Southern-soul guitar and horns, ending with a subtle use of the organ in a similar vein to Stax music legend Booker T. Another great track is “Talk to Somebody”, which flits between Fields incredible vocals – it’s easy to see why he has been dubbed “Little JB” on hearing this track – and the great instrumentation of The Expressions, making this track another highlight of the album.
In short, go and buy ‘Emma Jean’; if you can afford it, buy it on vinyl – it’ll sound amazing. Take it home one evening, place it on the turntable and ready yourself a drink; I recommend anything gin based, although red wine could work. You’ll have an amazing night, guaranteed.