ALBUM REVIEW: Lee Fields & The Expressions – ‘Big Crown Vaults Vol.1 – Lee Fields & The Expressions’

BIG CROWN. Big. Crown. Roll that collocation of words around your mouth; if you’re a real music lover, you know these guys, Leon Michels and Danny Akalepse, are indeed proper royalty for the love, the care and the level of curation they bring to such a fine stable of artists: The Shacks, Lizette & Quevin, Sunny & The Sunliners, 79.5 … musicians who absolutely have a mainline back to the original groove. No pale copyists these. Every one, true musical gold.

They’ve decided to go a-peerin’ into the vaults, bringing some lost session treasure into the light of day; and to this end they’re launching a new series that does exactly what it says on the tin: Big Crown Vaults.

The label of love says: “We are always sitting on a handful of unreleased songs that didn’t make their way to albums.

“Listening back to these gems we decided to launch a new series, and the first volume features the music of Lee Fields & the Expressions.” What a way to come out of the blocks.

And Lee: well, by way of introduction to the uninitiated, he’s a legend of the proper soul. North Carolina-born Lee cut his first 7″ for Bedford, the deep soul of “Bewildered”, back in ’69; he out one single out for the mighty London Records in ’73, the funk steam of “We’re Gonna Make Love (All Night Long)”; and kept on issuing on that gold standard soul format, the two-track 45RPM wax, all through the Seventies up to his debut album, ’79’s Let’s Talk It Over.

He’s helped launch the career of former backing singer, the much-missed Sharon Jones; also that of Charles Bradley, who performed with Lee on his first tour.

He’s seen hard times, almost giving up the soul for good during those lean years, the Eighties (let’s be frank: for all the vocal talent – the Whitneys, the Luthers – that particular iteration of the soul sound has aged a lot in comparison to the Sixties and Seventies’ brilliance); but he stayed constant, has celebrated his golden wedding with his wife – hell, still lives in the same house.

In more recent years he’s cut two inspirational albums for Big Crown with The Expressions: 2016’s Special Night, and last year’s It Rains Love. And it’s from these sessions that the nine tracks that make up Big Crown Vaults Vol.1 are taken.

Big Crown say, of the launch of the new series and of the new Lee Fields’ long-player: “We are always sitting on a handful of unreleased songs that didn’t make their way to albums.

“Listening back to these gems we decided to launch a new series entitled Big Crown Vaults and the first volume features the music of Lee Fields & the Expressions. These tunes were cut during the Special Night and It Rains Love sessions.

“When you hear these tracks you can imagine how difficult some of these decisions were in the first place to leave them off the albums.”

Such is the nature of an album session when it’s on fire; when the muse, ladies and gentlemen, is very firmly in the building. You cut more than you can use; maybe some tracks just bump a little hard against the sequencing; maybe there just ain’t room for it all on a wax disc twelve inches across.

But, uh-uh, don’t be thinking these cuts are the rejects; take a listen to the single that Lee dropped back at the start of October fr’instance which helpfully, we’ve embedded for you; it’s cover of Little Carl Carlton’s 1970 ‘A’ for Back Beat, “Two Timer”, and tell me this ain’t quality. That perfect valve mixing desk production; that voice. It’s a proper soul hip-swinger, brass, skeletal guitar chops and big resonant bass, Lee flying high in recounting a sorry tale of a love burn.

“Two Timer” is the loud ‘n’ proud album opener, sets out the stall for the quality that’s comin’ up behind. “Regenerate” is a properly heartfelt country soul nugget, which Lee, a native of North Carolina, exults and excels in. Gospel piano and a time-marking wah-wah keep the beat ticking while our main man reaches inside for wisdom to help you through a hard time; you just can’t imitate this level of knowing and its expression. El Michels, Big Bill Schalda and others are in to bring brotherhood and harmony to the chorus. If this doesn’t hit you in the feels, consult your physician.

“Do You Know” is a masterpiece of psychedelic protest soul, fuzz guitar riffs crunching like an escapee from a Pebbles compilation, loose bongos hanging just that split-second off the absolute beat for feeling. “Do you know how it feels to live in your world?” exhorts Lee, lamenting guns on the streets, guns in the schools; and the Proud Boys raise the spectre of something truly dark, we’re gonna need people to sing out for positivity. Bar the ‘rona, it should be filling the floor at a niterie near you.

A 6/8 organ swing invites is into “Time” – in which twangy, muted guitar, spare and considered brass, allow a slow ‘n’ sure grace for Lee to really let fly about the slow hurt of the passing years, in which “people … just fade away.” There’s proper soul screams and a trumpet that starts to take it outside the pocket in the search for every drop of feeling. It drops out, swings back in on that muted guitar, for a scorching reprise.

“Thinking About You” takes it right out on the floor, that snare pinging, for a smooth and elegant slice of what we’d call a proper northern anthem over this side of the Pond. Lyrically it’s a song to his wife of fifty years and counting, their unbreakable bond and how they stay strong. Man, he’s still thinking about her. After all this time, he can write a song that’s full of sweetness and truth and constancy: a theme he returns to in the slow, Sam Cooke styles of “Don’t Give Up”, on which Lee raises the hairs, strings alternately gracing and dropping to the spareness of the guitar riff. It’s the sort of deep cut that would send collectors into a frenzy were it on an obscure label out of Bakersfield, 1966. It manages to convey raw power and sweet grace.

From right down in the vaults comes a proper finger-snappin’ gem in “Out To Get You”, another cracker that Lee never laid down vocals for; but like the instrumental flip of The Exciters’ “Reaching For The Best”, it has so much power and it sure as hell owns your hips. It’ll be a cult hit to cut a rug, and it’s a chance for The Expressions to take the limelight – this’ll be the sixth album on which they’ve worked with Lee, and they have a symbiosis of a groove goin’ on.

It’s a good transitionary tune, as the flip of the vinyl (if that’s your preferred listening format – and surely it is?) is composed of instrumental cuts of the opening tracks, again giving The Expressions and assorted travellers their moment. Is it padding? Is it hell. It brings out different potentials from the songs, so thusly “Two Timer” wouldn’t sound out of place on, say, the soundtrack to Across 110th Street; “Regenerate” becomes a sad end title; “Do You Know” is still irresistible street funk, itchin’ and scratchin’ at your dance muscles.

Be glad of Big Crown, be glad of Lee; together they really are in perfect harmony. From The Vaults Vol.1: Lee Fields & The Expressions is a slab of the truest music from a proper guiding light of an imprint.

Lee Fields & The Expressions’ Big Crown Vaults Vol.1 will be released by Big Crown Records on digital, CD, trad black and limited translucent purple ripple vinyl on December 4th; you can pre-order from Big Crown here, or alternatively at the label’s Bandcamp pageRap and Soul Mail Order will be sure to be stocking it if you’re in the UK.

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