Hot Buttered Soul (Stax ’69) Rating: A
After 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. The album 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. 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. Things change significantly on the uptempo 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 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,” 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, 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 - the best part of the song is 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 songs couldn't even be considered as singles, yet the album was essential just the same, and the bombastic but brilliant Hot Buttered Soul remains a singularly satisfying soul album that has stood the test of time.
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