Monday, June 22, 2009

The Great Albums: Isaac Hayes - Hot Buttered Soul

Artist: Isaac Hayes

Album: Hot Buttered Soul

Release date: 1969

Original label: Enterprise/Stax

Appears in: 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Summary: Soul man serves up new-style R&B

Background: Stax was a label in disarray in 1968. Otis Redding had died. The company's distribution deal with Atlantic came to an end and not only did Atlantic take back Stax stars Sam & Dave, it also laid claim to virtually every recording Stax had issued since 1958. So the powers that be made a bold decision: to create an instant back catalog by issuing approximately 30 albums and 30 singles all at once. Isaac, a preeminent Stax songwriter who'd already generated one failed album for the label, seized the chance to do a second album and make music the way he wanted to. In doing so, he rewrote the playbook for how soul could sound, even if he only wrote one song for the album.

Merits: Until Hot Buttered Soul came out, the LP format was an afterthought in the soul/R&B market. With very few exceptions (Sam Cooke's Night Beat among them), Soul LPs consisted of a couple of big hits unique to a particular artist surrounded by some covers of popular songs of the day. In essence, they were expedient creations designed to cash in on a top 40 smash or two. What Isaac did was take a handful of songs and virtually rewrite and reshape them into one unique and unforgettable artistic statement. Whereas most individual soul songs had tended to be 3.5 minutes in duration before, the four Isaac recorded for Hot Buttered clocked in as long as 18 minutes and as short as five minutes. He selected the songs he wanted to do and rendered them his way, building each on drama, melodrama, declamatory spoken word, rock guitar, cinematic flourishes, and several kitchen sinks. And he put it out without any singles. It should have been a commercial disaster. Instead, it became one of the biggest selling soul albums up to that time.

Highlights: Walk on By, which keeps walking righteous for twelve minutes of impeccably wrought heartache and a moody noir riff that puts a little swagger in your stride if you're listening to it on your iPod. Its haunted ambiance left no doubt that Isaac was well suited for crafting movie scores. Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymystic, Isacc's lone contribution as a songwriter, is a stone cold, sexed up jam that gives way to an extended interplay between the piano and rhythm section that bounces along like a basketball in Kobe's hands. By the Time I Get to Phoenix stretches out an intimate tale of leaving to such epic, near comic, proportions, you might actually be able to get there from wherever you are before the tune comes to its end with eerie church-inspired organ that, like street sweepers, washes all the hurt away.

Demerits: One Woman, the other track does suffer a bit for the fact that it does not aspire to the same lofty heights as the other songs that grace this album. Moreover, the approach Isaac pioneered here proved so effective, that he continued on with variations for a few years that, while very accomplished, began to feel a bit rote by comparison. Some will blame this album for ushering in disco and, in particular, Barry White, but I see that as an asset. Take that, Dave Marsh.

Alternate selection: Black Moses expands this concept out to two LPs, and though more doesn't always translate into better, it has some breathtaking moments, such as Going in Circles. Shaft is a must, if only to hear the crucial role Hayes played in in ushering in the modern era of movie soundtracks. Much of it is indispensable, but divorced from its context, it's not ass essential as, say, Curtis Mayfield's Superfly.

FYI: Walk on By was famously used in, and to promote, Dead Presidents. A music video was also created for the song. And both Walk on By and By the Time I Get to Phoenix were cut down to single length, performing very well on the pop & R&B charts. In fact, Hot Buttered Soul was a heavy hitter on the pop, jazz, R&B and easy listening album charts.

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