You can think of Lee Fields as an analogue to Sharon Jones. His voice—all crunch and sway—seems to come jolting out of a past that continues to seem all the more contemporary. When the man sings the rough edges get drawn into the belly of every sentence; those edges become the center and give the smoothness and class of the arrangements a distinct, on edge coloring. My World is his first record since 2002’s Problems, and his first with the backing group known as The Expressions, made up of studio musicians who have played as Dap-Kings with Jones and added their something special to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.
Fields made his mark after cutting some revered and avidly collected singles in the 1970s. His style was (and is) very much in the vein of James. Brown, that is. He stepped back into the light in the ’90s and has since dropped a bag of singles and albums. He carries whatever he sings, whatever it may be about, with the brash subtlety of a man who knows where he’s coming from—where he’s been and where he’s at.
My World is a sweet, sweet record, a knowing construction of soulful harmonies, thumping basslines, velvety strings, and, of course, Jones’ anguished cries and whispers. The title track is the best thing on the record, laying out a brash and surprisingly nuanced critique of the systemic bullshit circulation that prevails in the 21st century everywhere. He howls heart-in-throat over mournful strings, chiming guitars, and a thick rolling bassline. It is a classic soul jam that sets up shop effortlessly in the here and now.
Another high point is the cover of The Supremes’ hit, “My World is Empty Without You.” Smooth as hell, from A to B, from the clapping bongos of the intro to the languid string figure and bassthrob which closes it. It’s an old song and a well worked over message, the lover, finally clear-eyed, gazing at the hole left behind by a someone-gone. Fields fills it with the simultaneous tenderness and terror needed to make it work though, and more than that, makes it hit like a well thrown punch to the gut.
The Expressions have three instrumental numbers on here: “Expressions Theme,” “These Moments” and “Last Ride.” All of them lay into a groove and meander on through it, the first notably simmering over a funky little organ figure. “Honey Dove,” a previously released single, spins off a sugary, languid little guitar lick, Fields all remorse, again calling out to an out-the-door lover. Its docility gives the lie to the suffering of his suffering—it’s washed in joy as much as limned with sorrow.
There just ain’t no replacement for the gritty flower and flow of soul music. And after hip-hop palmed from the past sample upon sample, it’s nice to hear some new records getting kicked out, building of the interest in the sounds and styles that have stayed hip and irresistible even when chopped, looped, and recalibrated by the voices that have passed over them. Lee Fields is the real deal, no doubt about it, and this record could set the tone to a slow, summer evening from 2009 to 1962.
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings – 100 Days, 100 Nights
Various – Shaolin Soul
Various – Soul Sides, Volume 1