If you listened to Naturally, the 2005 release from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, you heard Lee Fields on “Stranded in Your Love.” And if you didn’t listen to that album, what the hell is wrong with you? In an era of computer-generated pseudo-soul, Sharon Jones is bringing back the old school with a vengeance, picking up a ball that was dropped when Marvin Gaye died (perhaps this ball was buried with him and Ms. Jones dug it up and ran with it. This metaphor is getting icky – moving on). And Lee Fields is running right along with her, which is fitting since she was discovered while singing back-up for Fields in the 1990s.
Fields has been doing this funk/soul thing for a long time (he cut his first record in 1969. He was pretty inactive throughout the 1980s, and I’d like to think it was out of disgust), which may be why his new album, My World, sounds so deliciously old school. And being a member in good standing of the old school lends a lot of credibility to this album. I mean, it would be preposterous if someone like Justin Timberlake tried to put out something like My World (yet I do not think it would be preposterous if Cee-Lo tried to); this is grown-up soul, and there’s no gimmicks. No one is gonna mistake My World for the kitschy throwback stuff of, say, the Brian Setzer orchestra. Lee Fields is the real shit, and he’s simply making the only music he knows how to make. For those of us who have been dying for a slice of real soul here in the 21st century, Lee Fields is also providing us with a hot, buttered mug of awesome with a side order of hash browns (sorry; I haven’t had breakfast yet). As far as I’m concerned, he and Sharon Jones could tour the country forever, holding old-timey revivals but with less religion and more ass-shaking music. Or they could both make an album with Danger Mouse – it’ll be a brilliant disc and, somehow, EMI will keep it from coming out. Just you wait.
My World would be right at home between your Otis Redding and Sam Cooke records, but it rides a heavier, funkier rhythm – which you can credit to drummer Homer Steinweiss and bassist Quincy Bright who, along with their fellow Expressions, provide a solid instrumental groove over which Fields deftly struts and wails. In other words, My World can be summed up in three words: “The. Real. Shit.” Every single teenage r&b diva you see on American Idol owes a considerable debt to the music of people like Lee Fields and the only way they can ever possibly repay it is to stop what they’re doing right now, go home, and get jobs more suited to their talents. Like maybe clerking the night shift at the 7-11.
Granted, Fields’s stuff will come off as a bit cheesy to some (for instance, on “Ladies,” he actually mentions “sugar and spice/ and everything nice), but good funk and soul has always been a bit cheesy. “Try a Little Tenderness” is cheesy as hell, but it is also phenomenally badass. If you don’t think so, Zombie Otis Redding and I would like a word with you. (Zombie Otis Redding only knows one word: “Braaaaaiiiiins.” But even undead, he’s still got one of the all-time great voices.) Fields and the Expressions are on a mission to get heads nodding and possibly also to get bras unhooked. That’s what this music has always been about and I’d be hard-pressed indeed to object to that. At the risk of sounding like an old curmudgeon (that’s never happened before, certainly not here at Bollocks!), I’ll say this: maybe today’s kids can conjure up that lovin’ feeling while Rihanna prattles on about her umbrella (ella ella ella ella – seriously, that’s really fucking annoying. But that doesn’t mean you had to hit her, Chris Brown. That’s dirty pool no matter what), but I’ll take Lee Fields and Sharon Jones and that old school stuff every time. Even the instrumental tracks on My World (there are two and they are excellent) have an organically sensual vibe to them that I just don’t find in the drum-machine propelled pop/soul that’s so popular today. Not that I’m trying to get these over-produced kids to round up some session musicians and attempt something like My World; they would fall flat on their faces if they did that. The fact is, Lee Fields (and this is true of all the great soul singers) possesses the right mixture of sorrow, joy, lust, faith, and plain ol’ grit to carry an album like My World. You forgive the cheesier moments because the album is pretty much a wall-to-wall groove.
Honestly, it’s hard to imagine someone disliking this record. Soul may not be your cup of tea or whatever, but if you’ve ever liked chill-ass music, you’d do well to check out My World. Some people might dislike how old it sounds or how cheesy some of the lyrics are, but anyone who puts it on, pumps up the volume, and lets the beat roll is in for a good time. After wallowing in mediocre indie for the last week, My World has provided me a refreshing blast of funk and soul to haul my ass up out of that rut. Stephen Malkmus once observed (I’m paraphrasing here) that he tries never to spend more time reading about music than he spends listening to it and I’ve worked hard to listen to more music than I read or write about (not bragging, but it’s no mean feat). It’s albums like My World that make that effort worth it and remind me why I love music to begin with.