Nicknamed “Little JB” for his resemblance to James Brown, Lee Fields brings original soul back full force in his third release with The Expressions, Emma Jean.
Artist name: Lee Fields & The Expressions
Album name: Emma Jean
Record label: Truth & Soul Records
Genre: Soul, R&B, Funk
Release date: 6/3/2014
Stand out tracks: “Just Can’t Win” “In The Woods” “All I Need” “Talk To Somebody” “Stone Angel”
Relisten value: [Rating:10/10]
Non-skipping streaming: [Rating:9/10]
Dorkproval rating: [Rating:9/10]
One of the primary appeals of soul music is its ability to make even the most forlorn and desperate lyrics feel uplifting. Whether it’s money troubles, unrequited affections, a lover who done you wrong or a lover you done wrong, soul music reminds us how common certain miseries really are, and instead of going the chocolate, wine and tears route, we’re compelled to jump to our feet and dance our troubles away instead.
Named after Lee Fields’ late mother, Emma Jean ranges from woeful blues to foot-stomping funk, and Lee Fields & The Expressions never miss a beat, Fields’ gravelly voice delivering an authenticity that many artists have tried (and failed) to replicate in the recent soul revival.
Although currently experiencing a career peak, few are aware that Lee Fields has been recording original R&B since 1969, even touring with the likes of Kool & the Gang, Sammy Gordon and the Hip-Huggers, O.V Wright, Darrell Banks, and Little Royal. He signed to Truth & Soul records and released his first album, My World, with their house band The Expressions in 2009. The growth since their first release is clear, and though My World was well-received and re-established Fields as a front-runner in the genre, Emma Jean expands on a sound he’s been tinkering with and perfecting for over 40 years.
The album cover seems to encompass the overall tone of the album: pictured in black-and-white, Fields stands profile on a barren winter beach with leafless trees in the horizon, with one foot balanced on a piece of driftwood as though slightly bracing himself. Emma Jean begins with “Just Can’t Win,” a track any recent college graduate can identify with. It expresses the frustrations of trying to make ends meet when the odds seemed stacked against your favor, but delivers a punch of hope-filling funk that makes you inclined to say, “F*ck it,” pop open a bottle of Charles Shaw and have a living room dance-party. Besides, as Fields whispers in the last few beats of the song, “If you keep on trying, you just might win.”
The twangy, upbeat cover of J.J Cale’s mellow “Magnolia” is further testament to how the group is expanding on original soul sounds; it has a cloying, heartbreaking sweetness to it and you can almost see Fields’ shaking his head in self-pity as the song trails off with him repeating, “You’re the best I ever had…”
“All I Need” is an instrumental intermission track that feels more like the tease before an encore. On it, The Expressions are finally given a chance to show off their musicianship with a groovy blend of blaring horns, lively percussions, and guitar work that almost makes you stop wondering where Fields’ vocals went off to.
As much as pop music insists that “these h*es ain’t loyal,” it’s refreshing to hear an artist bare his soul on a record. In “Stone Angel,” Fields agonizes over letting a good woman slip away, unabashedly tallying a list of what he’s willing to do if only she’d give him one last chance. Call me sentimental, but the title lends me to believe the lyrics are based in truth, and that in Fields’ mind, that’s what she’s remained: a stone angel, her perfection unmarred yet inaccessible.
“Talk to Somebody,” a cheeky and funk-filled song interjected with enthusiastic James Brown-esque shrieks, is sure to be a favorite at live shows. It’s about a woman who is, as Fields keeps insisting “Makin’ me wanna run away!” He pleads for her to find a pastor, counselor or just get down on her knees and pray because he’s clearly not equipped for whatever baggage she’s trying to weigh him down with.
Emma Jean succeeds in delivering every element found on a signature soul record: horns, a somber pre-track “Let me just talk for a minute” breakdown, Tourette-like screeches, and, most notably, a palpable vulnerability quivering within Fields’ coarse notes.
Check out the official music video for their single “Just Can’t Win” above.