Graded on a Curve:
Lee Fields &
The Expressions,
Special Night

For a significant portion of his career, Lee Fields was known only by the heaviest of funk and soul lovers. However, beginning in the late ’90s his profile began to rise in direct proportion to the fledgling neo-soul movement, and together with crack band the Expressions he’s grown from an artist primarily descended from the innovations of James Brown to one offering a broader and very rich early ’70s template with an inclination for slow romantic burners; his latest is Special Night, and it continues his evolution with assurance and verve. It’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Big Crown.

Had Lee Fields quit the biz after the 1979 release of Let’s Talk It Over, he’d still be remembered for the bright rays of funky sunshine his self-produced and funded LP (on his own Angie 3 imprint) provided to heavy-duty aficionados of soulful groove. Reissued first in ’97 and again in an expanded edition by Truth & Soul in 2013, even with its maker securely ensconced in hypothetical retirement mode it’s basically a cinch the LP would’ve returned to store racks.

This observation mainly comes down to an abundance of vigor and sturdy execution, though if certainly influenced by James and the J.B.’s, it’s also clear that Fields, who began his recording career in 1969 with the “Bewildered” b/w “Tell Her I Love Her” 45 for the Bedford label, was no mere clone. Vocally, there is an undeniable similarity to Brown, but even in the walloping motion of “Funky Screw” there are subtleties of approach as the album’s title track points the way to Fields’ latest effort.

Obviously, the man didn’t retire, though the ’80s didn’t produce much, but at the point of his hookup with the Desco label in ’97, he’d been busy playing shows and releasing CDs and cassettes throughout the ’90s. Reading that he was on the roster of Ace, the storied Mississippi-based and initially New Orleans-centric label in the days prior to its sale to UK reissue entrepreneurs might seem enticing, but in fact this material, which reportedly suffers from weak production and a reliance on synths, remains out of print and mainly discussed in relation to his Desco debut.

The album was Let’s Get a Groove On, a deluxe funk banquet with backing by the Soul Providers, the drum tight instrumental unit noted today as a crucial component in the development of neo-soul and as the precursor to the Dap-Kings of Sharon Jones fame. Offering up a serving of Fields at his most Brownian, it wasn’t until 2002 that follow-up Problems arrived on Soul Fire, the Philippe Lehman-led label that resulted from the splintering of Desco.

Desco’s dissolution also resulted in Gabriel Roth’s Daptone, and Fields ending up on Soul Fire has regularly been attributed to the desire for a rawer sound; given Problems’ post-psychedelic soul guitar maneuvers, Curtis-Isaac-James Black Action flick-descended moves and gritty urban atmosphere in general (only enhanced by its jacket photo), this wasn’t a difficult conclusion to draw, but Fields’ subsequent releases for Lehman’s Big Crown predecessor Truth & Soul do fruitfully complicate the narrative.

After a substantial gap in activity, 2009’s My World, ’12’s Faithful Man, ’14’s Emma Jean detailed a migration toward more sophisticated arrangements, occasionally augmented with strings and boldness of scope but with no sacrifice in potency. James-like killers a la My World’s “Money I$ King” were still to be found as Emma Jean was titled for Fields’ departed mother, but an increasing percentage of the singer’s productivity related to the terrain of romantic relationships and with a decided lack of Barry White-esque kitsch.

The progression continues with Special Night. The LP’s opening title track sets the bar high, its ’60s-’70s foundation featuring Hammond B3, rich horn interjections, and naturally Fields’ unimpeachable voice, enhanced with facets of refreshment, e.g. a vaguely eerie organ figure, a spoken finale capping-off a nearly six-minute running time, and most of all a distinctive rhythmic attack.

Surely informed by the advancements of the J.B.’s, perhaps the best way to describe the bass and drums is hip-hop cognizant, an intense but lithe approach that might be less explicit during the considerably more Northern Soul-ish “I’m Coming Home” but is underneath the crisp pop-tinged structure and engaging backing vocals nonetheless.

Of course, stylistic range is also in play; with prominent horn charts and Fields’ steady urgency, “Work to Do” embodies the Southern side of the ’60s landscape, emitting shades of Stax as the organ and general brightness suggest the work that flourished under Willie Mitchell and the studios at Muscle Shoals. Effervescent piano lines assist “Never Be Another You” in traveling into ’70s regions, though in part through a vintage guitar-amp effect the exact neighborhood is difficult to tidily peg.

The real strength remains Fields’ ever growing ability at the microphone; here, he adjusts from passionate to conversational without strain and remains confident enough to occasionally cede the spotlight to the Expressions, a band strong enough that My World, Faithful Man, and Emma Jean all produced instrumental albums.

On some of Fields’ proper efforts room was made for instrumental entries as well, but not Special Night, which continues to sand down the rough edges that helped to define Let’s Get a Groove On and Problems but to non-detrimental effect; in this regard, “Lover Man” is an emotive showcase as the rhythm, and particularly the superbly employed hi-hat, further the contempo feel.

Stepping away from the personal for a slice of prime message music, “Make the World” avoids similar precedent from Brown, reaching a plateau instead via flute solo, increasingly signature Big Crown amp fuzz, and Fields’ delivery; as the song nears its conclusion, he whips out a fervid “Good God!” immediately triggering thoughts of Mr. Edwin Starr.

This is followed by the nasty slow groove of “Let Him In,” the singer hitting a highpoint of emphatic pleading as prickly bursts of guitar recall the best of the ’60s soul-blues crossovers and wraps up with an era-appropriate fadeout. “How I Like It” conjures maybe the record’s most wicked beat as the whole hints at ’80s R&B vocal oomph without losing touch of the album’s overall feel.

From there “Where is the Love” ropes in the backup vocalists and picks up the tempo for a ’70s-rooted nugget that’s impressively unhindered by the constraints of formula or influence, the track leading into the more relaxed but still full-bodied ambiance of Special Night’s finale “Precious Love.” Through patience, determination, quality material, a powerful voice, and a splendid band, Fields’ has transitioned from a rough diamond to a well-rounded king of modern soul.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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