Funk, soul, brother Isaac

You can sometimes trace a direct lineage from seminal albums through to their modern descendants. Sometimes, though, it’s just a genetic fragment, a heartbeat or a swagger that travels through the generations. When we talk about Can’s lasting influence, we can feel the ur-krautrock’s presence everywhere. When we talk about Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul, we have to feel the fabric of modern music between our fingers, and bring it up to our noses to inhale the waft of Hayesian heritage.

The four songs that make up the album are diverting and ingenious. They walk around you, several times, making a mockery of conventional song structure. They are arranged like masterpieces—think of the cinematic interplay between strangled electric guitar and soaring strings on “Walk On By”. They know when to ride sparse, motorik beats, and when to let the piano parts expand to fill the universe of emotions—as on “Hyperbolicsyllablecsesquedalymistic” (see above). Everything is produced in a way that suggests the studio is a living thing—especially on the wandering “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, with its ambient, barely-there organ drone and Hayes’s “velvet sledgehammer” monologue, which eventually lead into something grander and more significant.

On the face of it, Hot Buttered Soul shouldn’t be so un-derivative. Two of the songs are “covers” (albeit in the loosest possible sense), and the album was pieced together from several recording sessions—a far cry from the deranged-genius-cabin-fever-vibe we associate with most truly original works. But, somehow, it feels vital and inspirational in the correct sense of these words: it gave life to soul as a progressive, expansive genre (consider Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly, released three years later in 1972); and it provided a rich seam of sounds and textures that artists would tap into in the decades to follow.

Capped with Hayes’s inimitable, husky set of pipes, the album manages to strut and preen, but also to serenade and emote. It’s no wonder the music it sired was, taken as a whole, so schizophrenic.


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