Sunday, 9 July 2017

Hot Buttered Soul - Isaac Hayes

Provenance: Like many people of my generation (the greatest generation, incidentally, even if previous cohorts have tried to assume that mantle) my first exposure to Isaac Hayes came about thanks to South Park. Even then, I didn't know that Chef was being voiced by a legitimate musician.

Unbeknownst to me, I had also been exposed to Hayes as a performer thanks to the short-lived Walkers branded 'Sundog Cheesy Popcorn' (what a name), or more accurately, its terrible TV advert.

I'm guessing that a combination of South Park and Shaft finally sparked a bulb to go off in my head, compelling me to acquire a double-disc 'best of' compilation. In turn, this led to me buying Hot Buttered Soul because who doesn't want a sprawling nineteen minute version of 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix' in their music collection?

Review: I can tell you one guy who doesn't appreciate Isaac Hayes' trademark extended jams - my former housemate Ben. He went to Womad 2007 with his girlfriend and upon his return saw fit to complain that Isaac Hayes "didn't really sing much", instead that his band kept playing "really long instrumentals" whilst Hayes muttered "love, love" every now and again. Essentially, what Ben is describing is pretty much every classic Hayes release, but I think the poor lad was expecting a bit more 'oomph' from proceedings.

I, however, went into Hot Buttered Soul with open eyes and so it's no surprise that I love this album. It's certainly one that requires a specific mood to enjoy; I wouldn't wish to start my day to it, nor blast it whilst driving to my regular five-a-side game. This is evening music, late night music even, designed to lull and seduce, creating a mood slowly and deliberately. It builds, builds, gets hotter and hotter, then returns to the simmer just when you're expecting an explosion of release. The first track, twelve minutes of 'Walk On By' (a song I have unsuccessfully tried to introduce as a football chant - is there anything more pathetic than a lone drunk man, keeping time on an advertising hoarding, demonstrating that at least he knows all the words, if not how to carry a tune?), is archetypal. It starts quietly, unobtrusively even, but pulls you along with a languid groove punctuated by bravado horns. Whilst this is going on, lush orchestration is being dripped into proceedings, until before you know it eleven minutes have passed and you're lost in a maelstrom of music, thick, dense and delicious. It's quite amazing.

In terms of precedent, I had only heard one other guy who could perform this trick - the high-low slow burn - as effectively, the bluesman Freddie King. Much to my frustration I can't find the performance on CD or online, but damn it, I certainly heard it; the intro seemingly goes on and on, the band threatening (or teasing) a crescendo before slipping back down the gears. All the while, King's guitar is weaving in and out of Hammond organ lines. The payoff, when it finally comes, is immense - a stinging guitar lick and King virtually howling just two words - 'How long' - and I'm not kidding when it makes you want to punch the air.

The most obvious equivalent to 'Walk On By' on the album is the aforementioned 'By the Time I Get to Phoenix', the evergreen Jimmy Webb number. If anything, it proceeds at pace even more considered than 'Walk On By', but does include one of Hayes' raps that, along with his masterful arrangements and lengthy jams, came to define his sound. (For my more youthful readers, by 'rap' I'm talking about a long spoken word introduction that is not necessarily performed rhythmically, nor does it have to rhyme. In Hayes' case, these were often meditations upon love, relationships and loss. He does them very well, too, imbuing his deep baritone with emotion and character as he narrates for almost seven minutes before easing into song.)

The two other tracks (yes, there are a grand total of four songs on Hot Buttered Soul) are almost blueprints of the Isaac Hayes technique in microcosm. 'Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic' (I'm only typing that once lads) is the hardest driving, funkiest cut with sassy female backing vocals but even then a good portion of its ten minute running time is given over to a choppy piano solo. 'One Woman', meanwhile, begins almost tentatively, like some kind of hip lullaby; by degrees it strengthens and flexes, concluding as a full-bore, string-drenched soul-stirrer.

In summation, there is one word I haven't yet used but has never been far from my mind as I listened, and that's 'hypnotic'. There are others that certainly apply, like 'languorous', 'sultry', 'sexy' or even 'peculiar', but the mesmeric quality of hearing songs crawling from a state of amorphous sparsity towards something that sounds, frankly, massive, is a hell of a trip. In its own way, despite possessing few of its overt trappings, Hot Buttered Soul is a slice of psychedelia, albeit one that exists within its own category. Certainly it would go on to influence other artists, most obviously Barry White, but few could replicate the aurally overwhelming sublimity of Isaac Hayes when he was cooking with gas.

By the way - Isaac Hayes always looked the part. Sunglasses, gold chains, a metal mesh shirt - this guy was the complete package. And he knew it. Just check this superb footage from Wattstax '73. Not bad, eh?

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