Hot Buttered Soul

Band: Isaac Hayes
Album: Hot Buttered Soul
Best song: Four songs. Four classics.
Worst song: See above.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but just after I graduated college and moved out here to the DC area, I shunned modern and independent music. I dove headfirst into 1970s soul and picked up as many Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers, Teddy Pendergrass and Isaac Hayes records as I could find. I eventually got into the O’Jays and the Ohio Players. They were the only records on my stereo for about 18 months in late 2003 into early 2005. Hot Buttered Soul is the best of those records.

It’s easy to forget how odd Hot Buttered Soul is, as an album. Though it’s not a part of our collective mind like Dark Side of the Moon is, it’s similarly inaccessible. Isaac Hayes had been a songwriter, producer and session player for many years before Stax picked him up in 1967. Hayes’ first record was a flop, containing more radio-friendly short tracks and medleys. Before he’d recorded Presenting Isaac Hayes, he’d written hits for Sam and Dave, including “Soul Man” and “Hold On I’m Comin.” In an attempt to build up the label’s catalog in the post-Otis Redding world, Hot Buttered Soul was promoted heavily, but Hayes demanded full creative control. It was quite a gamble, as Hayes was hardly the household name he is now.

The results are devastating. Hot Buttered Soul 75% covers and only four songs long. The record contains an eight (!!) minute spoken word introduction — by the way, less than half the song’s length — to a soul version of a number one country hit. Which is not to say “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is anything but brilliant. Because, really, it is amazing.

The criticism of Hayes’ music is not incorrect. The songs on the album are a bit repetitive and drawn-out. My refutation to that is that the subtleties in changes in the song as it goes on are what makes the album so very amazing. The small arrangements in “Walk on By” around the ninth minute may not be grand, but they make the song move along. Like Daft Punk’s amazing “Around the World,” “Walk on By” adds and subtracts characters as instruments. (Let’s forget, for a minute, that the song was originally recorded by Dionne Warwick and was written by Burt Bacharach.)

“One Woman” is the most accessible of the songs on the album, tells the classic musical story of an infidelity. Hayes’ sweet baritone and string-and-piano-heavy production produces a dreamy feel completely lacking in the normal funk for which Hayes would become known. “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” is the only original on the record, with backup singers, the fiercest groove in funk and Hayes’ awesome keyboard soloing filling the record. Like “Walk on By,” the song adds bits and pieces to its nine-minute tableau as Hayes drops multisyllabic words about his brain.

(By the way, this album has sold over a million copies. These are the kind of things that remind me of my faith in the American consumer.)

Screw Shaft. It’s not, but Hot Buttered Soul is, no doubt, Hayes’ masterwork. It’s one of the best albumns to bump in your car on a hot summer day or to warm you up in a snow storm.

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