[20 March 2009]
In 1969, Isaac Hayes went from being one-half of Stax Records’ own Holland-Dozier-Holland (Hayes and David Porter were responsible for many of the label’s iconic early hits, like “Hold On, I’m Coming”, “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby”, and “B-A-B-Y”) to the bald, beautiful, and tender face of the Memphis label’s post-Otis Redding (and post-Atlantic) second phase. His musical revisionism marked a sea change in both the label’s aesthetic and the general tone of 1970s-era soul music. Unlike the explosive acts of Stax’s immediate past (think Redding, Sam & Dave, et al.), Hayes’ solo output sedated tempos and elongated track runtimes—even the single edits of his more prolix album cuts tend to feel longer than they actually are. As a songwriter for other artists, Hayes had been mercilessly concise, but on his own, he slackened the leash on the tunes, turning his originals, and covers of other contemporary pop standards, into tailed wisps of anti-macho feeling wistful enough to be carried by the wind.
Hayes became known for his radical reinterpretations of other people’s songs; half of his groundbreaking 1969 album, Hot Buttered Soul, consists of epic versions of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Walk on By” and Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, songs that had been big hits for Dionne Warwick and Glen Campbell, respectively, and which Hayes made immediately cool with a wave of his seductive and symphonic hand. For his 1971 pièce de résistance, the double-LP Black Moses, Hayes focused on the lite-pop compositions of others, including Bacharach and David (”(They Long to Be) Close to You)”, “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”), Curtis Mayfield (“Man’s Temptation”), Kris Kristofferson (“For the Good Times”), Toussaint McCall (“Nothing Takes the Place of You”), and Clifton Davis (“Never Can Say Goodbye”, which had been a hit for the Jackson 5 earlier that same year).
Black Moses super-sized Hayes’ newfound love for conceptual vastness: it’s a down-feathered sinkhole of orchestral soul, endless refrains, and Hayes’ majestic country timbre. What is so striking about this music is how it can bubble over with brass, strings, and generous pretension, and yet remain immediate and personal. Standout tracks like the eight-minute “Part-Time Love” and the nearly ten-minute “Ike’s Rap IV / A Brand New Me” pull you deep into the slo-grooving world of bath-side mantra and velvety fantasy. As perhaps the definitive break-up record of its time, Black Moses predicted other long-form heartbreaks like Marvin Gaye’s Here, My Dear, and yet was also a product of the expanding soul/R&B universe at the time (see Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From, both released the same year).
Stax’s new reissue of Black Moses thankfully restores the original LP’s kick-ass gatefold cover, which unfolds into the shape of a cross to reveal Hayes, decked out in a caftan and shades, arms open wide to receive all us sinners. This is without a doubt one of the greatest album cover designs, a product of the era and the LP format, and while it may not be as unfoldingly grand in its CD version, it’s still the craziest multi-folded hunk of cardboard to sit on your music shelf.
If Hayes is Biblical on the cover of Black Moses, then he’s downright hedonistic on the front of 1976’s Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak). It’s like an X-rated Broadway musical, right? Stax is simultaneously reissuing this lesser Hayes LP—for the first time on CD, no less—which, incidentally, stuck a fork in Hayes’ relationship with Stax. He had sued the label shortly before, resulting in a release from his contract, and put Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak) out via his short-lived Hot Buttered Soul imprint. (The following year, Hayes would lose all rights to future royalties on his music after filing for bankruptcy.)
It would nice if, despite those rock-bottom circumstances, Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak) were a worthy addition to Hayes’ catalog, but in reality it’s pretty forgettable. I’ve argued before that Hayes’ music from the ‘70s can be hindered by its eagerness to date itself, and Juicy Fruit (Disco Freak) is an explicit manifestation of that argument. The opening title track, for example, celebrates an ephemeral trend in dance music that fails to couch its appreciation in more timeless terms like, say, “Dancing Queen”. “Let’s Don’t Ever Blow Our Thing”, on the other hand, proceeds over the fine line that much of the Black Moses material flirts with, and into near-parody. This isn’t to say that the grooves aren’t still happening, because they often are; the main problem with this record is that the songs, all of which Hayes wrote, are simply not up to snuff, and the performances feel lackluster. Still, no amount of boilerplate artistry can erase the fact that Hayes’ brave new soul music of the early ‘70s was spectacle, fantasy—a veritable mountain of sound that you can gaze up at with wonder from here.