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Five for Friday: Isaac Hayes Songs

Nicknamed Black Moses after the title of his 1971 album, Isaac Hayes proved to be as majestic and stately as such a designation implies. His large frame and shaved head demanded instant respect, and as a songwriter with Stax Records – a harder-edged foil to Motown – he earned it. Concord's boutique label, Craft Recordings, has just reissued three of Hayes' most important works – Hot Buttered Soul, Shaft, and Black Moses – on 180g vinyl LPs mastered from the original tapes. Together, the albums showcase an adventurous artist with a love for improvisation and knack for articulating romantic drama. Hayes also understood the importance of context, simultaneously telling stories that put listeners in the minds of the narrators while reflecting on the cultural moment. Here are five favorite songs from Hayes' reissued works.

"By the Time I Get to Phoenix"
Glen Campbell may own the most recognizable rendition of this song, which gracefully unfolds as a romantically refined take on heartbreak, but Hayes' interpretation burns with a unique passion via a slowly struck rhythm. Hayes treats his deep voice as an instrument, letting an occasional quiver become audible to create a sense of maintaining control. His reading is partly a cover, but also a wholesale reworking of the Jimmy Webb-penned original. And it emerges as a platform for Hayes' improvisational-like spoken-word diversions. Stretching past 18 minutes, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" announces Hayes is the kind of man willing to take his time. Love in his world – "Soulsville," as he says – should not be rushed. And just as the track's intro and outro capture the emotional toll romance can inspire, the swinging finale reveals a man who is far from broken.

"Ike's Rap II / Help Me Love"
This confessional medley from 1971's Black Moses continues to enjoy a long lifespan, having been sampled by artists as diverse as pop star Alessia Cara ("Here") and dark electronic act Portishead "(Glory Box"). Hayes' original is a seven-and-a-half-minute cinematic journey full of lush, orchestral strings, a bluesy piano, and a horn section shouting to the heavens. The R&B anthem can in one moment feel like a triumphant John Barry arrangement and in another mirror a late-night panic attack. It's also tragic, capturing the mindset of a lovesick man responsible for his own heartache. From the start, Hayes makes it clear he's the bad guy: "I know I abused you/I took advantage of you," he states. What follows isn't a justification or list of wrongs, but a song that chronicles the horrors of regret.

A topical vocal number on the largely instrumental soundtrack to the early ‘70s film Shaft, "Soulsville" is a place Hayes regularly liked to visit in his music. Here, he directly spells out "Soulsville" attributes and outlines a community that more than four decades on sadly feels all too familiar. Jobs are scarce, crime rampant, and too many are too addicted to notice. Hayes sounds surprisingly somber and vulnerable. "Black man, born free/At least that's the way it's supposed to be," he sings, before inviting listeners to go on a tour with him. Sporadic gospel-inspired backing vocals lend an air of hope, but the saddened, spacious guitar and intermittent horn bursts don't prop up Hayes so much as empathize with him.

"Do Your Thing"
At 19 minutes, this Shaft cut may appear intimidating. It is not. Hayes possessed the rare ability to seemingly slow down time, and his extended tracks don't necessarily aim for epic greatness as much as they seek to put the listener at ease. As a lover, Hayes was interested in owning the full evening rather than a brief moment. On "Do Your Thing," he offers a sermon in individuality and confidence. This lecture in self-assurance is designed to gradually demolish one's insecurities. Hayes starts slow, a strutting groove accentuating his confide-in-me tone. Horns wag their imaginary tails and an electric piano adds a jolt of energy. "If there's something you wanna say/And talkin' is the only way/Rap on," he sings. And if we haven't quite gotten the message, Hayes gradually ramps up the pace until the finale comes on as an assertive mix of guitars and ardent vocals.

"Walk on By"
Along with the proof offered by "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," Hayes on 1969's Hot Buttered Soul had fully transitioned from ace songwriter to a masterful re-interpreter. "Walk on By," penned by Burt Bacharach and originally sung by Dianne Warwick, perseveres as masterful orchestral R&B. While the regal Warwick finds comfort in grief, Hayes amplifies the song's blend of rage, hurt, and lust. Stretching out the original three-minute song to 12 minutes, Hayes adds a sharp, slightly sinister guitar and fiery strings. Essentially a give and take with the instrumentation, the guitar work doesn't know whether to weep or throw a punch. Sure, it's ultimately about heartache and recovery. Yet Hayes uses funk and R&B to show that one emotion can feature more shades than a color wheel.

February 23, 2018

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