Lee Fields and The Expressions are one of the best, most authentic old school R&B / soul groups of today. Their new album, Emma Jean, is set to be released on June 3rd through Truth and Soul Records, and you can stream it now.
One of the interesting things about the record is that Fields offers fresh takes on songs by a couple of the greatest musicians to come out of Tulsa, Oklahoma: J.J. Cale and Leon Russell. On J.J. Cale's breezy "Magnolia," Fields delivers a soft and somber performance, while on Russell's jungle rocker "Out In The Woods" (relabeled as simply "In The Woods") the band is in full force as Fields runs down the groove with howling vocal delivery.
It's appropriate for Fields to take from "The Tulsa Sound," which combined a wide array of musical styles ranging from blues, country and western, jazz, rock & roll, Latin, to even Native American and African rhythms. Fields is often compared to the great soul singers of the '60s like James Brown and Otis Redding, but he is truly his own person and he's made a concerted effort to do unique things with his sound instead of rehashing the past. Emma Jean shows Fields getting psychedelic, with songwriting that might be better than his previous two albums, the critically acclaimed Faithful Man (2012) and My World (2009).
Emma Jean is Fields' mother's name, and the album certainly takes inspiration from the love he still has for her - although she passed away over 20 years ago. "Paralyzed," "Eye To Eye," "Still Gets Me Down," and "Stone Angel" are classic R&B ballads that showcase Fields' emotive vocal style. "Standing By Your Side," "All I Need," "Talk To Somebody," and "Don't Leave Me" are grittier funk tunes that have Fields exorcising demons as he taps into a place of pain and lets the feeling flow. Part of Fields' power is taking that rough, abrasive side, and switching back over to the smooth soulful sound. The contrast between the two makes each side that much more powerful.
It can be difficult for excellent live performers like Lee Fields to capture their energy on an album, but in this case that's not an issue. Fields' singing is fantastic, as usual, and The Expressions come through with precise performances that showcase deep harmonic and melodic sensibilities, framing the vocals perfectly. The album was mixed and partially recorded in Nashville at the studio of The Black Keys' sonic mastermind Dan Auerbach. Auerbach also wrote "Paralyzed," according to a press release. This album might be less dance friendly than their previous albums, but Fields has a story to tell and you've gotta respect that.