Today’s retro-soul singers are the delta bluesmen of the 1950s and 1960s, having plied their trade for years, toiling in anonymity until a crop of new, hip young people catch on and decide to make them their own, recognizing the greatness that has been there all along and elevating their commercial and critical status to a level never before dreamed. And much like with the blues and folk revival of the late 1950s/early 1960s, it’s the younger generation of listeners seeking authenticity in their music, looking back to the previous generation for inspiration from performers who harken back to an earlier time when music was seemingly less complicated, more in touch with its roots and therefore ultimately truer to itself.
Lee Fields, a soul performer who’s been at it since at least the mid-1970s, has, along with Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley over on the Daptone label, seen a bit of a career renaissance in recent years as younger, predominantly white audiences clamor for relics from bygone eras, undiscovered gems still kicking around the scene and doing their best to realize what most would have long ago deemed an impossible dream. And much like with the Swampers down in Muscle Shoals, the majority of these black performers find sympathetic, wickedly funky ears in groups of young white players, nearly all of whom honed their musical chops largely on black music.
While not necessarily at the same level as Jones as far as name recognition (though that should all change very soon), Fields has certainly done a fair job of matching her in terms of quality. Following a fairly lengthy absence in which Jones, et. al. came to prominence, Fields returned to recording with 2009’s My World and, three year’s later, Faithful Man. Both were appropriately well received critically if not commercially and continued to establish Fields as a vital performer. With Emma Jean, Fields, along with The Expressions, has taken things to an entirely new level, raising the bar for his contemporaries in what seems to be a continuing game of one-ups-manship as each release seems to surpass the last, whether it be Jones, Fields or Bradley.
More so than on previous releases, Emma Jean finds Fields settling into the material, fully inhabiting it, taking full advantage of a sympathetic backing group and pouring his heart and soul into each performance. Mirroring the approach Solomon Burke took on his 2002 comeback release Don’t Give Up on Me, Fields opts for laidback, lived in soul numbers that are fully fleshed out with appropriately funky arrangements that serve as ideal vehicles for his voice which, while certainly having aged, has by no means suffered the ravages of time and, much like Burke, often employs a low, throaty growl (“Magnolia”) that then explodes when nimbly navigating the upper reaches of his undiminished vocal range (“Still Gets Me Down”).
Unlike Burke, however, Fields churns out his own material, penning each of the eleven tracks present here rather than relying on others or functioning as an interpreter of the sentiments of others. By alleviating the middle man, each soulful sound is direct form the source, undiluted and as emotionally resonate and pure as it gets. On “Still Gets Me Down”, Fields puts his all into a performance underscored by a gradually crescendoing horn figure that leads to a stark verse in which Fields’ voice, fraught with emotion and on the verge of cracking, is augmented by skeletal drums and a skittering, reverbed guitar. Nearly exploding on the chorus, the song takes a number of interesting sonic twists and turns before settling comfortably into an emotionally-charged chorus featuring horns, back-up vocalists, and a pulsating bass figure that mirrors the song’s melodic progression to near perfection.
With Emma Jean, Lee Fields and the Expressions have crafted a modern day soul masterpiece that could easily sit next to, if not surpass, the greatest releases of the late 1960s and 1970s. From opener “Just Can’t Win” through to the pleading closer “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, every song ably stands on its own as the best example of retro-soul and, as a whole, Emma Jean functions as a master class in soul music past and present.