Hot Buttered Soul (Stax ’69) Rating: A
After spending years penning classic ‘60s hits for other soul artists (most notably Sam and Dave), Isaac Hayes stepped to the forefront on his own influential and enduring second album, Hot Buttered Soul (his first album, Presenting Isaac Hayes, is for diehards only). Facing a serious financial crisis after the death of Otis Redding and losing their back catalog in a bad deal with Atlantic Records, Stax sought to saturate the marketplace by showcasing all of their artists. They released an astounding 27 albums simultaneously, and among that batch of albums this one became an improbable hit. Hot Buttered Soul starts with his monumental transformation of Burt Bacharach/Hal David’s “Walk On By,” which I'd call the definitive version of the song were Dionne Warwick's version not so equally flawless. So let's call both of them definitive, especially since Hayes' 12-minute version is so different from her succinct masterpiece, not to mention any other song I've ever heard. The song starts with symphonic strings, but before long some wah wah-ed guitar takes over along with chanted female vocals; after an impressive 2 minute buildup Hayes starts singing in the saddest voice imaginable. Strings and guitar take turns taking center stage, and flutes and horns add further layers of atmosphere, yet it is Hayes' great vocal performance that is arguably most impressive, as he intones in a deep, masculine (yet vulnerable) voice that Barry White built his entire career on (interestingly, years later White began his ascendance as Hayes' star started to wane). This song's ghostly atmosphere stays with you long after the last note, and the extended jam ending showcases Hayes' great backing band, the Bar-Kays (who deserve consideration for the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in the sidemen category for this album alone!). Things change significantly on the up-tempo second track, a seriously funkified psychedelic soul number that also stretches out for over 10 expansive minutes. I guarantee you that somewhere George Clinton was smiling and taking notes while listening to this fabulous song, and I bet that he heartily approved of the song title - “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic," which Hayes actually manages to fit in as part of the chorus! His cover of Chalmers/Rhoads' "One Woman" is the album's "straightforward" and "short" (at only 5 minutes long) song, but this song has the album's coolest lyric ("one woman’s making my home, while the other woman’s making me do wrong”) and a beautifully laid back melody along with some catchy female backing chants. Last but not least, Hayes covers Jimmy Webb’s “By The Time I Get To Phoenix" (previously a hit for Glen Campbell), ” an 18+ minute song "that shows you what the power of love can do." I know that because Hayes tells me during his 9-minute spoken word intro (one of the first "raps" on record), which may be overkill but which nicely sets the tone of this mournful story song about a broken down romance. It's about a woman who takes terrible advantage of her man, because "you can take love and kindness sometimes for weakness." He tries to leave her time after time but he simply can't. Finally, he realizes that she's not going to change her cheating ways, and he leaves her even though it breaks his heart to do so. And that's just the introduction - for me the song really starts in earnest when Hayes starts singing, and another symphonic (horn heavy) buildup and extended ending close the album on a high. Curiously, as the album ends I find myself feeling uplifted despite the song's (and indeed, the whole album's) sad subject matter. I guess being in the presence of greatness does that to me, for this was a daring, ambitious, and downright audacious achievement way back in 1968. To compose a 45 minute album consisting of a mere four songs, three of which were covers (an odd ratio given Hayes' past songwriting accomplishments) was unheard of at the time, and the album helped cement the idea of completely self-contained album statements. These album versions couldn't even be considered as singles at these lengths, yet the album was essential just the same, and hugely popular too, in large part due to edited down singles for "Walk" and "Phoenix." Indeed, the bombastic but brilliant Hot Buttered Soul remains a singularly satisfying psychedelic soul masterpiece whose (mostly) slow-paced, lushly sensuous music has stood the test of time.
The Isaac Hayes Movement (Stax ’70) Rating: B+
Isaac wasn't about to tinker too much with a successful formula, and the similarly constructed The Isaac Hayes Movement was a worthwhile successor that's quite enjoyable to listen to, though it fails to scale the lofty heights of its predecessor (Isaac's artistic if not commercial peak as a solo artist). Again featuring a mere four songs, this time all of them are covers, and Isaac again slows them down, significantly expands their lengths, and adds lush orchestrations, prominent woodwinds and horns, and singable female backing chants (regrettably, there's less wah wah guitar this time out). The album opens strongly with a 12-minute rendition of Jerry Butler's "I Stand Accused," which starts with a near 5-minute long rap during which Isaac rather long-windedly professes his love for another man's woman. Although extremely effective at first, the problem with some of Isaac's raps, well this one anyway, is that they're less interesting the third or fourth time around, but fortunately the rest of the song, featuring fluid guitar, the usual assortment of horns, woodwinds, and catchy female backing vocals, is really good, as lyrically I'm moved and amused by his tale of being guilty "in the court of love" and musically the song's symphonic swells are impressive. The next two songs, covers of Chalmers-Rhodes "One Big Unhappy Family" and Bacharach-David's "I Just Don't Know What To Do With Myself" (later notably covered by The White Stripes), are less distinctive and are comparatively modest, but both are still enjoyable, in large part due to more singable female chants and jaunty horn punctuations (mostly trumpet, which I've always had a soft spot for because I used to play the instrument back in junior high school, albeit not especially well). The theme of the former song is self-explanatory, and when Isaac bares his soul on the latter song it's comforting; we've all been there missing that someone special, and there's a warmth and a sincerity to these songs that always shines through. The album's final track and high point is a 12-minute cover of The Beatles' "Something." Again the female backing vocals are great and very catchy, Isaac tweaks the lyrics in interesting ways, and again there's a symphonic element as the song scales several epic peaks, while John Blair's wild violin solos are especially notable and give the song an experimental flavor that's perhaps too often lacking elsewhere. Indeed, the problem with this album is that it lacks the thrill of discovery that Hot Buttered Soul presented, plus the songs are less accomplished on the whole. Still, these are minor problems, as Isaac's formula simply works. As such, The Isaac Hayes Movement is an enjoyable album that I heartily recommend, with the one caveat being that you should listen to the far superior Hot Buttered Soul first.
...To Be Continued (Stax ’70) Rating: A-
Aptly titled, ...To Be Continued does indeed continue in the same style as Hot Buttered Soul and The Isaac Hayes Movement, and though again this isn't quite the knockout classic that was Hot Buttered Soul, it is an improvement on The Isaac Hayes Movement; smartly, Isaac would shake up the formula the next time out, as another sequel would've been going to the well once too often (some felt that was the case already this time out). Again comprised primarily of slowed down, elongated covers except for the original raps/songs that contain "Ike" (Isaac's nickname) in the title, musically this album presents more of the same but with less female backing vocalists and more wah wah guitar (and I love me some wah wah guitar). Thematically, after a comparatively short (4-minutes) spoken word intro (“Ike’s Rap 1”) that I frankly usually skip, the album traces the arc of a love affair. The slow, dramatic, lovely "Our Day Will Come," formerly a hit by Ruby and the Romantics, is the courtship, and an 11-minute rendition of Bacharach/David's "The Look Of Love," the symphonic, lightly funky, sensual album highlight (in large part due to some extended wah wah guitar soloing, as again the Bar-Kays provide stellar support), is where the romance reaches its peak. All is well until the ominous ending, but "Monologue Ike's Mood I," a more up-tempo, delightfully light woodwind flavored mood piece, allows listeners to catch their breath before a memorable version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" sees the good times gone. Granted, The Righteous Brothers' original is still the best version of this much-covered classic, but this is among the better covers, with Ike's prototypical symphonic swells and exotic vibraphones (I think) adding to the ambiance. That 15-minute medley ("Monologue Ike's Mood I/You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling") out of the way, the final track, "Running Out Of Fools," presents the bitter aftertaste of romance having turned irredeemably sour, but this time when she comes back for second helpings Isaac will have none of it, having learned his lessons the hard way. The song isn't an album highlight, but it does provide a nice thematic wrap up, and Isaac's crooning is notable, as his singing throughout the album is extremely strong. I don't have much more to add other than to say that if you liked his last two albums then you should like this one as well, and if you've never heard either of them but are fans of Barry White, the smooth sounds of "Philly soul," or trip-hop artists like Portishead or Tricky who early Isaac Hayes so influenced, then this impressive album should be right up your alley.
Shaft (Stax ’71) Rating: A
Far from being another well done but inferior sequel to Hot Buttered Soul, Shaft was something else entirely. This soundtrack to the Gordon Parks film starring Richard Roundtree is where Isaac "crossed over" into the mainstream, and the success of the film and its far superior attendant soundtrack popularized the "blaxploitation" genre; other famous musical practitioners of the form included Bobby Womack, Marvin Gaye, and of course Curtis Mayfield. The title song and the album itself hit #1 on the Billboard pop charts, and the title track also won an Academy Award for Best Original Score; indeed, Hayes' performance at the awards ceremony, where he cut a visually striking figure with his bald head, muscular build, cool shades, and flashy attire, is perhaps the enduring image that most people have of Hayes (well old-timers, anyway). As for the music on this 70-minute soundtrack album (originally a double LP, now a single CD), rather than slowed down, extremely long cover songs, most of the livelier material here is comprised of Hayes originals, and only three vocal tracks are included along with a dozen mostly short instrumentals. Again backed by the Bar-Kays, along with his own band The Movement and the Memphis Strings and Horns, this is mostly a mood album that sometimes is too easily relegated to background music; some of these songs were meant to be listened to along with the movie visuals, after all. However, this is really good background music, as the album expertly showcases Isaac's considerable composing and arranging skills while boasting a cinematic flair along with a newfound diversity. As for individual songs, needless to say the iconic title track, his most famous and signature song, is the biggest highlight, what with its fabulous mixture of chugga chugga wah wah guitar and orchestrations, hi-hat cymbals, horns, flutes, female backing vocals, and of course unintentionally hilarious (and much parodied) lyrics about the "black private dick who's a sex machine to all the chicks." Man, I used to think that Patti Smith's "Gloria" had the greatest opening line of all time ("Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine"), but perhaps a rethink is in order? Anyway, some of the songs here kinda come and go, but there are plenty of other potential highlights as well, and even the "filler" is generally pleasantly listenable. As for the instrumental highlights, "Bumpy's Lament" and "Bumpy's Blues" are lovely, melancholic mood pieces (the latter a bit bluesier, naturally), "Ellie's Love Theme" is likewise lovely, with pretty vibes and horns adding ambiance, "Cafe Reggio's" is a breezy guitar showcase (think "smooth jazz") buttressed by airy woodwinds, horns, and strings, "Early Sunday Morning" is an easy going, aptly titled delight, "Be Yourself," delivers jaunty horn-led funk pop, and "No Name Bar" is another airy, horn infested, funkified winner that's longer (6:11) than the norm here. The other two vocal tracks are also highlights, "Soulsville" being simply a really good soul ballad (aided by tasty sax, classy electric piano, and gospel-ish female backing) about ghetto life that was used prominently in the film, while "Do Your Thing" is something else entirely. Really, what you think of this album may largely depend on what you think of this song; it is almost 20 minutes long, after all. Again breaking out the wah wah for some extended funk, this one goes on for way too long but I really like the majority of it. I'm a sucker for Hammond organ and wah wah guitar, after all, and this song has both in abundance, with the highlight being some extended wah wah guitar jamming by those funky Bar-Kays. Again, this song could definitely be cut considerably (I wonder if there’s an edited version available), and you might want to occasionally skip some of the other lesser tracks as well, but Shaft is still an excellent album by a singular talent who on this album was really spreading his wings.
Black Moses (Stax ’72) Rating: B
This time the prolific Hayes was back in pre-Shaft territory, as Black Moses (another nickname and an awesome one at that) is comprised primarily of slow, stretched out cover songs that are heavy on the lush orchestrations, usage of female backing vocalists (perhaps too much so this time out), and occasional raps that are at least all short this time out (why would anyone rather hear a guy who sings as well as Isaac talk instead?). The problem with this album is that stylistically it doesn't deliver much new that Isaac hadn't done better before, plus quite frankly this album, and many of its songs, are too damn long. Fact is, many of these songs start to blend together for me after awhile; well played and sung though it is, most of this album coasts prettily by in a pleasant but bland sort of way, adding up to less than the sum of its individual parts. Maybe some more wah wah guitar would've helped, or more funk workouts along the lines of Little Johnny Taylor's "Part-Time Love," with its funky intermingling of many instruments (wah wah guitar, horns, congas, piano, Hammond organ, female singers), and Isaac's own simple but direct and effective "Good Love," to offset all the other "adult contemporary" ballads, I don't know. I do know that I regard versions of The Jackson 5's "Never Can Say Goodbye," The Carpenters' "(They Long To Be) Close To You," and Dionne Warwick's "I'll Never Fall In Love Again" (the latter two were again written by Bacharach/David, while Isaac also covers two Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler tunes) to be inferior to the originals, and give me Al Green's take on Kris Kristofferson "For The Good Times" any day as well. Then again, as per usual Ike puts his own spin on these tunes and all the others, and even though I prefer the original that doesn't mean that I don't also appreciate this version of "Never Can Say Goodbye," mostly because of the pretty flutes and creative drumming, plus it's interesting to compare the contrast between Isaac's strong, masculine croon and Michael's high-pitched, boyish vocals. I also appreciate the soulful Hammond organ on "Nothing Takes The Place Of You," a sad and lonely breakup tune that obviously hit close to home as Isaac's marriage was breaking up at the time; Isaac's pained, vulnerable vocal is also great on "Your Love Is So Doggone Good," and I dig the horn charts as well, even if the song is too long. I also have a healthy appreciation for his surprising falsettos (and of course the wah wah guitar) on the Friends Of Distinction's "Going In Circles," and the agreeably airy vibes of Butler's "A Brand New Me" and "Never Gonna Give You Up" (even if the former is too long), while the moody "Ike's Rap II" provided the foundation of not one but two cornerstone tracks of classic mid-'90s "trip-hop" albums by Portishead ("Glory Box") and Tricky ("Hell Is Around The Corner"). So this album definitely has its moments and is never less than a pleasant listen (it also has one of the best album covers ever), I just find it to be a bit bloated and hard to sink my teeth into, though on the whole I'm still a sucker for Hayes' seductive sound.
Live at the Sahara Tahoe (Stax ’73) Rating: A-
Before I talk about this album I'll note that Joy also came out in 1973, but I don't have it (it's rep is that it's not as good as previous albums though) so let's move on to this extremely enjoyable double live album. Including fine versions of several signature songs ("Shaft," "Never Can Say Goodbye," and "Do Your Thing," which is only 7 and a half minutes long which is about right) from his previous studio albums (but nothing from Hot Buttered Soul, alas), this live album also includes many cover songs not previously included on any Ike studio albums, making Live at the Sahara Tahoe an excellent purchase provided that you can find it. Isaac is obviously in his element and in command, his terrific backing band (The Movement) is tight and energetic, the sound quality is superlative, and the crowd is appreciative and enthusiastic without being intrusive. Like Black Moses, perhaps this album delivers too much of a good thing (i.e. it's too long and drags in places), but Live at the Sahara Tahoe delivers more in the way of obvious highlights. In general, I tend to fast forward the raps and most of the slower songs (which are better obtained via the original studio recordings, where available) and go straight to the funky stuff. That said, some of the slower stuff here is really good, including Carole King's "It's Too Late" and Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face," two terrific versions of two terrific ballads. Elsewhere, "The Come On" into The Doors' "Light My Fire" are a pair of excellent guitar showcases that really cook, Isaac sings with more of an edge than usual on tracks such as Bill Withers' funky "Use Me" and T-Bone Walker's aptly titled "Stormy Monday Blues," and Ike again covers the great Withers on "Ain't No Sunshine," an epic 11-minute rendition that despite being a tad too long cuts deep due to some stellar sax improvisations and a vocal performance by Ike that sees him performing without a net and is all the better for it. Sure, there are some songs here that are disappointing or not as good as the originals ("Windows Of The World," "The Look Of Love," "Elle's Love"), but the generous amount of new material (also including covers of B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby" and Traffic's "Feelin' Alright") and the superb overall quality of the performances makes this one of Ike's most fun albums.
Truck Turner (Stax ’74) Rating: B+
In 1974, Hayes actually starred in and scored not one but two blaxploitation flicks, Three Tough Guys and Truck Turner, the latter of which is the more substantial of the two from a musical standpoint (I haven't seen either film). It's not as good as Shaft, its obvious predecessor and the album which it will always be inevitably, and unfavorably, compared to (when people bother to remember this album at all, that is). This album is perhaps a bit harder-hitting and jazzier on the whole, and like Shaft its primary weaknesses are that several tracks kind of come and go, albeit rarely unpleasantly, and that maybe the album is a bit too long for its own good. Still, there's lots of good stuff here, starting with the title track, one of only four vocal tracks on the album as again Isaac's writing and arranging skills step to the forefront. This one has typical Hayes attributes (wah wah guitar, horns, female background singers) as he delivers symphonic, funky orchestral soul, and though there's a bit of a dated cheesiness to the track, to quote Isaac in "Shaft," "can you dig it?", and well yes I definitely can. Isaac then gets jazzy on several instrumental tracks, starting with "House Of Beauty" whose pretty piano groove, horns lending a helping hand (as per usual), sultry saxophone solo, and an all around easy going groove makes for quite pleasant lounge music. "Blue's Crib" and "Driving In The Sun" are "smooth jazz" styled George Benson-like guitar showcases (horns and orchestrations too, naturally) that can likewise be described as perfectly melodic and enjoyable background music, but "Breakthrough," a good funky guitar workout, is much harder hitting. So is "Hospital Shootout," with its highly energized, percolating wah wah groove, and "Give It To Me" and "Drinking" are other hard edged guitar showcases, the former almost hard rock, the latter bluesier. On the softer front, "Now We're One" and "We Need Each Other Girl" are utterly lovely, the former primarily due to piano, the latter more sultry sax. The album's undeniable standout, however, is the 9-minute groove-fest that's actually as good as its name: "Pursuit Of The Pimpmobile." Need I even say more? OK, suffice it to say that this one eases into a really nice groove, strings and horns add spice, the keyboards and guitars come in later, and all in all it shows Isaac and his band at their funky, musically layered best. Again, some songs here probably would work better within the context of the movie, and the album has some skippable tracks and is seriously flawed on the whole, but it also has a heck of a lot of interesting music, and I don't see why any fan of Shaft wouldn't also greatly enjoy the majority Truck Turner too. P.S. Truck Turner was packaged with Three Tough Guys on Double Feature at a budget price, so you should seek that one out. Note: I'm not all that familiar with Isaac's subsequent work, but the general consensus seems to be that the quality of his output dipped thereafter. Like many soul stars he had troubling maintaining his success during the disco era, and I suspect that he lost his hunger as well (outside interests such as acting cropped up, plus his financial woes likely occupied much of his time; he declared bankruptcy in 1976). Another reason why he remains underrated compared to other soul contemporaries of his era is that his image became a caricature (Shaft, Black Moses, and finally Chef from South Park!) that eventually overshadowed his musical accomplishments, which are considerable. Isaac Hayes died in 2008, six years after getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.