Personnel: Leon Michaels (vocals, guitar, flute, saxophone, keyboards, percussion); Dan Auerbach, Thomas Brenneck (vocals, guitar); The McCrary Sisters, Monika Christodoulou, Richard Swift (vocals); Jacob Plasse, Vincent John, Max Shrager (guitar); Russ Pahl (acoustic guitar); Mike Buckley (baritone saxophone); Dave Guy (trumpet); Ray Mason (trombone); Toby Pazner (keyboards); Nick Movshon, Homer Steinweiss (drums); N?stor Villar (congas).
Though he's been recording intermittently since 1969, the gritty, James Brown-inspired sound of soul man Lee Fields has undergone a bit of an evolution since he released My World in 2009 and 2012's equally fine Faithful Man. Part of that has to do with the fit he has with the Expressions, his much younger backing band that are among the brightest units on the retro-soul scene. They not only back the singer, but push him into exploring the full range of his voice, exploring colors he hasn't before as he declares, pleads, testifies, and cajoles. Together, they're a force that doesn't so much imitate Motown, Fortune, Stax, and Philly International, but rather creates a music that logically descends from them. Emma Jean -- titled for Fields' late mother -- is a seamless collection of 11 tracks led off by its second single "Just Can't Win," a midtempo groover introduced by the backing chorus, a slippery B-3, and a slew of funky breaks. When Fields enters, he finds a space between Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore, and Brown. Despite the taut bass and drums, the music is dreamy, almost elegant, but never loses its grit. Two tracks here celebrate Tulsa's contribution to R&B. First single "Magnolia" is a classic ballad by J.J. Cale. Fields' version is slightly faster, its arrangement fuller. Introduced by a gutbucket bassline, a snare, and sonorous B-3, the music swoons and bubbles. The singer's delivery is impassioned yet sensual, highlighting the humid, summery feel in the lyric as trebly guitars punctuate his lines. A pedal steel slips through just atop the backing chorus. The Oklahoma R&B connection is deepened by a stellar reading of Leon Russell's "Out in the Woods" (as "In the Woods"). It's rumbling, slow, gospel-infused, call-and-response funky soul; Fields' vocal swaggers through the mix. The band cooks on a walloping, all-but-instrumental showcase in "All I Need," as layers of percussion and wah-wah guitars highlight an expanded horn section -- Fields doesn't enter until the last 30 seconds. He does indulge his Brown worship in the uptempo funk jam "Talk to Somebody," but fine as it is, it's the outlier here, taking a back seat to the slow-to-midtempo soul cookers. On Emma Jean, the singles, and tracks such as "Paralyzed," "Eye to Eye," "Talk to Somebody," "Stone Angel," as well as the rousing country-soul scorcher "Don't Leave Me This Way," engrave a particular Lee Fields & the Expressions signature; currently no one is in their league. Emma Jean even stands out from its excellent predecessors in performance, arrangement, production, and inspiration. ~ Thom Jurek