Lee Fields & The Expressions - "Faithful Man" (Faithful Man)
The problem with throwback soul records, or any other revivalist form for that matter, is that regardless of how meticulously put together they are on a stylistic level, they never quite hang in there with the classics in terms of pure songwriting. When soul music hit its stride in the 1960s, it was due to brilliant performances of equally brilliant songs built on an organic amalgam of blues, gospel, R&B and pop that wrung out matters of the heart for all the teardrops they were worth. Today’s soul records are written with that formula wholly fashioned and ready to wear, whether for newcomers such as Aloe Blacc who approach the tradition with a contemporary sensibility or, in the case of Lee Fields, long-time vets with some unfinished business to attend to. The end result is music that, while quite enjoyable on a fundamental level, never feels quite as vital and immediate as that which preceded it.
That’s the predicament that Lee Fields faces on his second album for Truth & Soul, Faithful Man. A North Carolina native who released a number of sought-after heavy funk singles in the 1970s and worked the chitlin’ circuit throughout the ’90s to the acclaim of only the most ardent soul fans, Fields has benefited considerably from the recent vintage soul revival. The playing here, courtesy of Truth & Soul house band The Expressions, is strong and tight but never stiff, with a feisty horn section leading the charge, tick-tock drum work anchoring the affair, and string accents and organ swells hitting all the right spots. Residing in the general neighborhood of ’70s Hi Records, this is an expert deep soul record: tough yet sophisticated, stridently avoiding the sort of stiff supper club museum pieces that you can catch late at night on PBS, and keeping the concessions to contemporary trends at virtually nil.
Seizing on the increased production and performance value provided by the Truth & Soul crew, Fields is in wonderful form here. He has a gritty mid-range that when elevated to a higher register becomes as gripping as any voice can get. While the comparisons from his youth to James Brown might still work in a broad sense, Lee is possessed of a sturdy, distinctive set of pipes that he utilizes with a deft touch all is own. He’s developed well beyond being simply a shouter and has mastered when to unleash a pleading lilt and when to hold back and let a phrase simmer.
But as strong as this set is, it still faces the originality conundrum. Rather than a group of songs individually composed and packaged under the banner of a soul album, Faithful Man can occasionally feel like one extended, vaguely monochromatic exercise in proving the vitality of a brilliant yet aging art form. There’s no one individual track that stands out as a potential new soul classic, and the most memorable tune is probably a cover — a curious rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.”
It doesn’t really matter, though. The 10 tracks here could all be bland, paint-by-numbers offerings and Fields would still sing the hell out of them. This is the Lee Fields Show from start to finish and, to use a familiar adage, he could be singing the phone book and true fans of classic soul would still find loads to appreciate. All we can ask for is that the band doesn’t get in the way, the producers don’t do anything stupid to capture the youth vote, and that Fields doesn’t get laryngitis. Thankfully, none of the above occurred.