Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Much like Charles Bradley, gifted soul-singer Lee Fields had spent years in the "minors" before achieving relative notoriety in the late 2000s.  Bradley's shtick is more intriguing because he came out of nowhere and became popular as a senior citizen without a single previous album to his name.  Fields' newfound success is perhaps sweeter though, because he had spent the last 35 years putting out an impressive string of records that did what most records do when they lack a large launching pad that can lift them to the masses—flop!

In those years, his only legitimate claim to fame was a single that hit number 91 on the R&B charts in 1986.  That single brought Fields some attention.  But it wasn't from the average music listener.  It was from underground hip-hop producers who began sampling his songs to make their own art.  

But life, as we know, can be quite funny. In 2012, the 61-year old Lee fields finally received significant attention on his own with Faithful Man, which was the closest thing he had to a hit record. It reached 68 on the R&B charts, received an impressive 7.0 by Pitchfork and was generally received warmly by writers of other prominent music publications.  2014's Emma Jean proves that the success of Faithful Man wasn't a fluke.  There isn't a bad cut on this record, but, like many of his previous albums, the most fantastic quality Emma Jean is its aesthetic.  

Emma Jean is not only influenced by old soul records of the 60s, it actually sounds like one.  It's an odd slice of time that you can't help but marvel at.  Of course, that's not really an achievement to write home about by itself.  To make a record that has the old-time aesthetic of 60s soul music, all you need is the idea.  The sonics can be created with relative ease using studio trickery and all you need is capable instrumentalists to lay down the tracks. But Fields is the perfect artist to front such a concept, because he really can sing! Naturally, he's fairly outstanding.  But, the fact that he is 63 is remarkable.  Why? The James Brown and Wilson Pickett records that everyone fell in love with 50 years ago were the works of singers in their 20s or 30s.  And at 63, Lee Fields sounds like one of their contemporaries—though certainly not an equal.  That alone may make this album a must listen for 2014.  But it helps that it is simply a damn good album, too. 

Emma Jean by Lee Fields and The Expressions

Singles Going Steady: "I'm Not Ready For Love" by Promise

The Gerldets, later known as Promise

In 1969, four junior high girls from Washington D.C. seemed to be getting their big break.  They were singers in a band dubbed the Gerldets.  Two of the Gerldets had been performing together since they were eight years old.  Back then, one of their mothers was handling management duties and it's safe to say that her tutelage wasn't exactly bringing the pre-teens the fame and fortune they were craving.

But now, four years later, they were a quartet and the future was looking bright for the girls, who up until that time had only played small gigs, dances and private parties. This was because one of them had a serious industry "in."  Her name was Janice Jones, and her father's cousin was Eddie Kendricks, an extremely talented young fellow who sang in one of the best and most popular groups of its time.  

Here are The Temptations.  Eddie Kendricks sings backing vocals on "My Girl," a legendary number one hit of incalculable importance to popular music.

Eddie Kendricks graced the world with his haunting lead vocals with this song—a hit, which Rolling Stone ranked 389th on its list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. 

It must have been something for these girls to be just one degree of separation from a genuine star. Chances are, they were probably fans of his and the thought of him giving them a break probably made them as giddy as, well...schoolgirls.  

And Kendricks did help them.  How?  He arranged an audition for the pre-teens with the most powerful person in all of soul music, Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records. It was Gordy who had established careers for pretty much everyone in the soul genre, including the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, The Supremes...

...and the Jackson 5. 

I imagine a couple thoughts had to cross these girls' minds.  Sure, they could be "the next Jackson 5." But, maybe Gordy would do for them what he did for The Supremes and set up a nationally syndicated Jackson 5/Gerldets television special!  At the very least maybe he'd let the girls provide handclaps and backing vocals to the Jacksons' new hit recordings. There was only one way to find out.  The girls met with Barry Gordy and gave an audition.

It's unclear whether Gordy thought the Gerldets were talented.  What is known is that he rejected them and one of the reasons he did was because he didn't want to manage another underage group.  Still, you can't help but think that if the Gerldets truly had that "it" factor, Gordy and Motown would have gobbled them right up.

But despite Gordy's rejection, the Gerldets carried on.  They changed their name to Promise and released a couple singles.  They never achieved any success, which must have crushed them because they flirted with fame A LOT.  Here are three absolutely legendary performers they opened for:

In 1975, the four members of Promise were no longer girls.  They were 18.  College was on the horizon and each woman enrolled at a school somewhere across America.  I can't tell you that much more than that.  But, I can let you hear what they sounded like.   Here is one of Promise's flop singles: "I'm Not Ready for Love," which appears on a compilation called Homeschooled: The ABCs of Kid Soul, which includes 17 songs by obscure kid groups. 

"I'm Not Ready For Love" by Promise

My Best of 2013 List (15-11)

best of 2013 -- jamie.jpg

15. Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound by Various Artists

Purple Snow proves that Minneapolis knew how to make a record long before The Replacements and Husker Du.  It is a sprawling two-disc, two-hour funk/soul collection that shows what the Twin Cities was up to between the departure of Bob Dylan and the debut of Prince.  Well, that's not necessarily true, because Prince does appear on record here.  Purple Snow begins with a Prince Nelson contribution.  It was 1975 and he wasn't even old enough to buy a pack of smokes.  But there he was, age 17, and sitting in a session in his cousin Pepe's band 94 East as a rhythm guitarist on "If You See Me".  And damn was he great! It's a fantastic track and Purple Snow packs many that are just as good.  

There are terrific rare tracks by R&B legends like Alexander O'Neal, but like many "various artist" compilations that have come before it, this collection showcases great tracks from mostly unknown artists.  The results are extraordinary.   In particular, the contributions from The Lewis Connection and Ronnie Robbins are very strong.  But, the real treats come from Mind & Matter which showcases a young James "Jimmy Jam" Harris—who would later form a legendary hit-making songwriting team with Terry Lewis, whose compositions can also be heard in a couple places throughout this album. There are easily 20 stand-out cuts in this 30 song compilation.  For those that like their funk and soul both tasty and historic, Purple Snow is highly recommended. 

14. Once I Was An Eagle by Laura Marling

Once I Was An Eagle is an intimate combination of Laura Marling's droning, sensitive—and slightly percussive—acoustic guitars, hauntingly beautiful vocals straight-out-of-a-diary lyrics and an absolutely focused vision.  And, these days, an album like this is quite refreshing—and thank God it has found an audience that appreciates it.  The four song suite that seamlessly opens the album indicates that this 63-minute LP is a body of work, which Marling effortlessly rehearsed, calculated and probably wrote in a few inspired, all-nighter songwriting sessions.  It's not quite spellbinding, but it is very listenable.  If you're a "lyric guy or gal" there is a lot—and I mean a lot—to love over repeated listenings. 

At 23 years old, the singer/songstress has received plenty of comparisons to Joni Mitchell.  Why?  Because she's a girl who sings well and feels at home playing her acoustic guitar in alternate tunings?  Is it because, like Joni, she's blue? The comparison is understandable—especially because Marling's voice has a Joni Mitchell-like cadence—but it's not really accurate.  In truth, L.M.'s idiosyncratic songwriting is much closer to that of N.D.—Nick Drake.  There's nothing on Once I Was An Eagle  that is so melodically complex and immediately compelling like the songs on Court And Spark or Blue.  But there are a bunch of moving, mini Pink Moon-like masterpieces.  There's also a gorgeous, dissonant "Interlude"—a very smart inclusion by the way—that has Jack Nietsche written all over it.  It's a cool, early 70s incorporation.

If the brilliant Laura Marling has any issue with her songwriting, it is that she seems to compose melodies sort of like Bob Dylan writes words.  Her music is very intriguing and the odd melodic directions she takes do work, but the effect only lasts as long as you listen to it.  Even if one listens to Once I Was An Eagle 10 times in a row, attempting to sing back the melodies to any of Marling's songs is like trying to write down all of the lyrics to the first five songs off of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited.  Her work is great, but not that memorable or distinct.  So, here's a precaution: Anyone expecting Laura Marling's musical compositions to be as astonishing as her voice and artistry will be disappointed.  The indistinguishability of her songwriting will be the one and only reason her music may move 200,000 people instead of 2,000,000.  She has everything else within her mind, soul and voice box to become a real star.  

13. Love In Flying Colors by The Foreign Exchange

The Foreign Exchange makes a very sophisticated version of R&B/Hip-Hop that just feels so good.  It's dreamy, slick, polished music that is both life and love affirming.  I knew I loved it within a minute.  It's somewhere between an adult contemporary version of Frank Ocean and Esperanza Spalding, with maybe a little Robert Glasper Experiment thrown in.  The Foreign Exchange has received a ton of critical acclaim over the last five years and they deserve all of it.  Love In Flying Colors not only passes with flying colors, it should be on many more critic's end-of-the-year best-of lists.  

12. Random Access Memories by Daft Punk

There really isn't much to say.  I haven't met too many people who don't love this album.  I certainly love it—and I'm not someone who idolizes the ground Daft Punk walks on.  I came into Random Access Memories as a casual fan that maybe listened to a Daft Punk album once or twice every two years.  But, I played this one all the time.  It is refreshing to know that there are still really talented artists out there who have a fully realized vision of what they want to accomplish and seem to produce true classics effortlessly.  Though R.A.M sits at number 12 on my list, I would never argue if it was number one on someone else's.  

11. Aljawal by Alsarah / Débruit

"World music" has the tendency to scare some people.  Indeed, it often takes a bit of a push to deliberately listen to something sung in a language that one isn't familiar with.  For me to love it, the music itself has to be fantastic.  When it comes to Aljawal, a collaboration between the French producer Débruit and the Sudanese singer Alsarah, the music is incredibly alluring and easily transcends the language barrier.  Perhaps you automatically associate "world music" as background ambience used for relaxation during meditation or yoga.  In that case, Aljawal is only world music in its origin and would more correctly be categorized as Indie/Electronica.  It's not terribly accessible, but not quite esoteric either.  It's sort of like a combination of Beats Antique, DJ Thundercat and a not-so-top 40 Lana Del Ray.  If you have an open mind, I definitely recommend it.  This is very rich stuff and any close listening on your part will be handsomely rewarded.  

I should also note that Aljawal was selected by NPR as one of the 10 Favorite World Music Albums Of 2013