(Truth & Soul)
It is some consolation that, even as we continue to lose our
A-team of deep soul/classic R&B singers of the 1960s and 1970s like Etta
James and Solomon Burke, a group of talented, authentic, relative newcomers
have been able to jumpstart their careers in middle age (or older). Those
include Bettye LaVette, Sharon King, Syl Johnson, Charles Bradley, Andre
Williams. They have often been helped by small labels with a pronounced
retro-soul bent but a contemporary flair.
To this group, add Lee Fields – whose excellent Faithful Man is a product of the dream
team of producers, arrangers, songwriters and players (the house band called
the Expressions) at Brooklyn’s Truth & Soul Records, whose history
parallels Brooklyn’s better-known Daptone.
Fields recorded some small-label, James Brown-influenced
soul-and-funk records in the 1970s, the kind of stuff obsessed over by samplers
and British collectors. He started his “comeback” in the 1990s, without much
impact, but entered a new phase last decade when Truth & Soul started
recording him. This album, produced by label honchos Jeff Silverman and Leon
Michels, shows how well label and artist now understand each other. They both
intuitively sense the perfect moment to slam home emotion with a musically
boldfaced chord change and a burst of vocal prowess.
Fields’ voice has a pleading, straining urgency in its upper
register, but it comes across full of gritty strength and ripping intensity in
mid-range. The Expressions, who include Michels on multiple instruments
including saxophone and guitar, are perfect companions for this soul-revival
recording, augmented by eddying string arrangements and forceful supporting
vocals by Nicole Wray and Clifton Reid.
Truth & Soul seems to approach the songwriting
collectively – as many as seven names appear on an individual song credit,
usually including Silverman, Michels and Wray, as well as other band members.
(Fields only shares a credit on two of eight original songs (a tenth, called
“Intermission,” is just an instrumental break).
As in classic deep soul, the best songs tend to be about
heartbreak and loss, expressed with a confessional vulnerability that can erupt from introspection into a raw scream. The title
composition, which is addressed to a young woman who is tempting him to “do wrong” on his wife, peaks with one
of his most shredding yowls. “I Still Got It,” which you might expect to be an
exercise in cloying braggadocio, is actually an act of stirring defiance in the
face of problems. Even with a smoothly optimistic
horn-charged opening and an ongoing quick tempo, there’s a minor-key
underpinning to the melody.
The best song, “Wish You Were Here,” rushes past an
occasional cliché or two to confront loss – possibly death of a loved one –
with honesty and sadness. Fields gets perfectly the moments to accentuate that
loss, and the moments to be strong.
Occasionally, the retro-feel comes on too strong -the
brightly guitar-and-bass-driven, horn-punctuated TK shuffle of “You’re the
Kinda Girl” might have you running for K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Keep It
Comin’ Love.” (Toby Pazner does have a great organ run late in the song.) And a
shortened version of the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile” seems pointless.
But overall, Lee Fields is another late-period, deep-soul
success story. For those labels dedicated to this kind of music, and the
performers out there still looking for their best shot, keep it comin’.
Man,” “Wish You Were Here” STEVEN ROSEN