[19 March 2012]
Renaissance man Lee Fields has been cutting gut-busting soul ballads and James Brown-indebted funk gems since way back during both genres’ ‘60s heyday. But his name and hard-to nail-down discography probably would have fallen through the cracks of time had it not been for a recent Autumn career revival. Rescued from the abyss by Truth & Soul Records, Fields’ bang-on recreation of classic R&B (with new backing band The Expressions) on 2009’s My World felt sincere and refreshing. A flagrantly traditional record, My World ignored 40 years of pop evolution like the intervening years had never happened, punctuated by Fields’ throwback vocal style, perfectly crystallized in time.
So when Fields titled his new album Faithful Man, he was probably referring to his own allegiance to archetypal soul and funk music, having dedicated a life to his craft with few accolades. Repeating the formula, this new album again feels like a lost gem recently unearthed. But while My World was a somewhat spikier effort – the snappy drum break on “Money I$ King”; the pot-shots at America on “My World” – Faithful Man is mostly a collection of smooth ballads and plays like an elongated love letter to soul music, with the genre represented here by Fields’ other great love: women. Throughout, the aging crooner is consistently motivated by the female persuasion as he tells tales of doomed relationships and great loves.
Springing into life with the title track, the record wastes no time as the fully revved-up arrangement kick start instantly, with Fields entering in full voice. His powerful, smoky vocals taking front and center as expected: a reminder that age is not weathered his fine instrument, as evident on “I Still Got It”. “Take my hat, my shoes, my girl / I still got it,” goes the hook. He’s quite right.
“You’re The Right Kind of Girl: is a ballad in the spirit of Al Green, with appropriately light guitar licks and cracking drums. It’s a start of a long run of mid-to-down-tempo ballads that tests the limits of Fields’ vocal range. With its complex melodic structure, volume shifts, and running narrative, “Still Hanging On” is a difficult song to sing, but Fields tackles every track with considerable panache. Of course, he’s helped out by the fine arrangements and The Expressions’ layered sonic treats. On “Wish You Were Here”, for instance, horns are almost ever-present, showing restraint when necessary and indulging at the opportunity, while their unique feminine backing vocal harmonies also crop up on “Wish You Were Here”, as well as “Faithful Man” and the infidelity anthem “Who Do You Love”.
Faithful Man is a slightly less successful record than My World, primarily for its lack of diversity and a throwaway instrumental track that doesn’t stack up to the earlier album’s occasional vocal-less pleasures, but it’s still a success for one of the 21st century’s most relevant ‘60s survivors. Modern soul crooner Frank Ocean may have coined the term, but this truly is nostalgia, ultra.