“This is a man’s world,” James Brown once posited, before clarifying “But, it wouldn’t be nothin’, nothin’, without a woman or a girl”. On his third album for Truth and Soul Records with The Expressions, it seems these words hang heavy over Lee Fields, a man once nicknamed “Little JB” for his vocal and physical resemblance to The Godfather of Soul. After toiling away in minor obscurity for the best part of fifty years, Fields builds on the acclaim of recent years and perhaps reveals something about himself on a record named Emma Jean for his mother, where hard times and breaking hearts abound.
Partly recorded and mixed in Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys’s Easy Eye Sound Studio in Nashville, Emma Jean sees Fields moving at a slower, but more confident pace than previous. Rather than the kicking and screaming Fields found on Faithful Man (which featured in The Grapevine’s Best Albums of 2012), Emma Jean finds Fields settling comfortably into his role as an elder statesman of old-school R&B and reconnecting with his Southern roots on the smooth Tulsa soul of the late J.J. Cale’s ‘Magnolia’. While paying respect to the original, The Expressions trade wheezing harmonica for shimmering pedal steel and Fields’s resonant vocals lift this devotional to giddy heights. Similarly, the Dan Auerbach penned ‘Paralyze’ oozes with bluesy drama, while the reeling groove and gospel backing vocals of ‘In The Woods’ recalls the finest hours of Memphis’s Hi Records. Elsewhere though, Fields still excels in delivering hard-hitting funk, especially in the unadulterated foot-stompin’and hollerin’ of ‘Talk To Somebody’.
Throughout Emma Jean, Fields illustrates faltering relationships and the differing reactions of his male protagonists, ranging from bitterness and chest-beating to reconciliatory promises and torch carrying for lost love, which reach their peak in the closing pair ‘Stone Angel’ and ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Left abandoned and burned by the femme fatale of ‘Stone Angel’, Fields’s outward machismo is undermined by private promises of better times which ultimately fall away to the heartfelt petition of ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’. Brought to his knees, Fields wails like a man with nothing left to lose as slinky guitar and building horn blasts conjure up the spirit of Sam Cooke’s ‘Bring It On Home’, drawing Emma Jean to a triumphant close.
While the influences he channels into his work are plain to see, Lee Fields always keeps his best foot striding forward to somewhere innovative and new. And, at the age of 63, he may have delivered the finest album of his career. So far…
Emma Jean will be released through Truth and Soul Records on Monday 2nd June.