Album Review: "Emma Jean" Lee Fields

In 1969, Lee Fields introduced himself with a crackling cover of James Brown's "Bewildered," so faithful to the 1961 original that he earned the nickname "Little J.B." Through the decades that followed, filled with collector's-item indie releases and chitlin-circuit tours, his voice accumulated grit and heartbreak, and Fields became a genre idol himself, resurrected by the so-called deep funk movement that later birthed revivalists Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley. The soul troubadour's fifth LP, "Emma Jean," traffics in themes of love and loss Fields has perfected during his career, and proves yet again his knack for keeping a timeless sound timely.

Produced by Leon Michaels, a frequent contributor to music from like-minded labels Daptone and Soul Fire, "Emma Jean" features Fields' backing band The Expressions. And his weathered rasp wouldn't be the same without them: "Still Gets Me Down" builds to a lovesick climax with a gospel choir, an aching Hammond organ and trumpet exclamation points. Fields' gravelly vibrato and a thick bassline load a cover of J.J. Cale's "Magnolia" with even heavier tones of regret.

Not all love's lost on "Emma Jean," however. The saucy "Standing by Your Side" celebrates opening your heart to someone else, and congas on the largely wordless "All I Need" bounce with a gleeful swing reminiscent of Salsoul Records' proto-disco. While not necessarily groundbreaking in the context of today's retro-soul, The Expressions' ear for lush instrumentals and Fields' talent for from-the-gut lyrics and wails make "Emma Jean" a gem truly worthy of the classic sound it harks back to.