BY JOHN SCHACHT
Unlike some of his resurrected old school-soul peers, Lee Fields never retired his music career. He wandered disco’s back alleys (including a stint with Kool & the Gang), found steady-enough work in Europe and on the Chitlin’ Circuit, and was still evoking James Brown comparisons when the late 90s soul and funk resurgence first took root in Williamsburg.
Now, through three full-lengths with the Expressions beginning in 2009, it’s Fields’ top-notch — and increasingly diverse —output that suggests all that persistence and varied experience paid off. On these 11 tracks, Fields and his ace band really show off their versatility, this time tilting more toward the singer’s smooth soul roots in Fields’ strongest set of songs yet.
Fields expands his repertoire here to include second-wave smooth soul grooves like “You Just Can’t Win” — where his gruff delivery contrasts perfectly with slinky guitars and subtle Philly Soul strings — and the sexy “Stone Angel.” Fields kicks that track off with some Barry White pillow talk, before the wah-wah guitar, slinky tempo, and back-up singers kick in and turn the song toward Curtis Mayfield territory.
Fields form is spot-on throughout, though, and the band’s versatility really lets him stretch out to all corners of the soul music catalog. In addition to this softer side, Fields shows off his blues-belter chops while recounting domestic strife on the yearning “Eye to Eye” and lord-have-mercy LP-highlight “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” Fields delivers longing and heartache worthy of Otis Redding on the latter, while the Expressions build to a mighty crescendo of syncopated guitar, heraldic horns and a pedal steel that matches the singer’s desperate pleas.
Fields displays his trademark funk, of course, particularly on the down-and-dirty “Talk to Somebody” and “Standing By Your Side,” which blends verses of the hard backbeat with smoother Motown choruses. But the LP’s diversity — “Magnolia” taps Fields’ country soul roots, “In the Woods” harks back to his Carolina juke joint beginnings, etc. —succeeds because the Expressions consistently find the pocket in any style. No slight to Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley et al., but there isn’t a better pairing of soul singer and soul band going right now.
DOWNLOAD: “Just Can’t Win,” “Standing By Your Side,” “Eye to Eye,” “Stone Angel” “Don’t Leave Me This Way”