ISAAC HAYES Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It? (Stax)

Perhaps not quite what its title promises, “Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?” nevertheless cuts a broad swathe through the first decade of Hayes’ career over two CDs and a DVD. The not-quite-chronological presentation helps cushion the rapid decline in the quality of Hayes’ output following his epochal “Shaft” soundtrack, and it’s in gathering up his early symphonic soul experiments that this compilation scores heavily. The ever-unfolding digipackaging is also a delight, Hayes modelling the lexicon of old-school bling, including the obligatory monogrammed sunglasses, the inevitable gigantic digital watch, body-hugging gold chains and gold-trimmed Cadillac.

“Theme From Shaft” is included in an abbreviated single version, but its potency is only slightly curtailed: that insistent hi-hat line, the wacka wacka wah-wah guitar, the sinuous string charts, the staccato machine-gunning breaks, the accumulation of tension and its ecstatic release…yes, it’s as fabulous as you remember it. The slow, deliberate funk of “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” (can’t imagine Julie Andrews getting her tongue around that, for some reason), wisely presented in unedited form, takes its time to do it right; “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” is rather brutally hacked down from 18 minutes to seven, but Ike still takes it to soulful places even Jimmy Webb could hardly have envisaged it visiting – the sporadic outbreaks of testifying “oh yeah”s and “momma”s during the song’s introductory monologue are especially delicious. And for all Billy Bragg’s many talents, he’ll never make social protest as silky smooth as “Soulsville”. Recorded at Jesse Jackson’s 1972 PUSH EXPO, a previously unreleased “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” is allegedly Hayes only released gospel performance, a glorious, skilfully modulated treat, his fluttering falsetto whipping the crowd into a fervour. (Oddly enough, a previously unreleased “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” was a highlight of the double CD “The Very Best Of Marvin Gaye”.) Best of all is “Walk On By”, arguably the man’s masterpiece, his finest blending of mood, music, medium and message. With soaring strings that have the slightest acid undertone, and electric guitars that possess a mocking, serrated edge, I first heard this music making Wu Tang Clan’s “I Can’t Go To Sleep” great, not realising it was pilfered wholesale from the Clan’s collaborator on that track; hearing it here in its original form for the first time I was utterly floored. The drama of that craggy, rising and falling riff, the agony after the ecstasy, the scratchy guitar solo, the swelling and subsiding strings, the wailing organ, these are all the sounds of a very dissatisfied mind indeed. There are lifetimes of pain packed into its 12 minute duration. There’s even a curious lurching effect towards the end when it sounds as if the listener is zooming in and out of the band, like a “Top Of The Pops” cameramen trying to imbue his craft with a little clumsy psychedelia.

If half of this collection demonstrates unqualified brilliance, half of it lags behind a little. Early single “Precious, Precious” was apparently salvaged from a drunken jam session with the MGs’ rhythm section, and doesn’t sound like it wasn’t. A curious instrumental cover of “Let’s Stay Together” was intended to show off Ike’s saxophonical prowess but sounds rather more like sweet soul muzak. A succession of soundtrack commissions through the 70s provided diminishing artistic returns, “Theme From The Men” and “Title Theme (From Three Tough Guys)” passing through watered-down cop show “Shaft” parodies on their way to Village People territory. The bandwagon-jumping “Chocolate Chip” (which, tragically, doesn’t feature a guest appearance by Cookie Monster) and “Disco Connection” are unworthy vehicles for the man’s titanic talent, and a cumbersome cross-cut medley of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” and “I Say A Little Prayer” performed with Dionne Warwick is not so much a duet as a duel, the artists singing their different songs at, rather than with, each other.

The bonus DVD starts in momentous fashion, with footage of Hayes’ performance at the Wattstax festival, staged at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Isaac’s 30th birthday. (The documentarian, Mel Stuart, also directed “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory”!) Jesse Jackson introduces him with the words “We are now about to bring forth a bad, bad…I’m a preacher, I can’t say it”, and as the band vamp on “Theme From Shaft” Hayes is led on like a prizefighter, the 100,000 strong crowd erupting as he sheds his outer layers to reveal the trademark shaven head and all-over gold chains. There’s something gloriously archaic about the staging, too, as if the whole performance has tumbled out of some long-buried time capsule (which, in effect, it has): illuminated signs read “Black Moses” and “Shaft”, Hayes boogies in furry boots and overhead shots reveal a tiny stage looking lost out on the pitch, surrounded on four sides by packed bleachers. “Soulsville” follows, intercut with images broadcast back from the hood, and “Rolling Down A Mountainside” is skilfully conducted to its conclusion by Isaac’s guiding right hand. But then - and I type as someone who was a staunch “South Park” advocate back in the day -there’s “Chocolate Salty Balls”; the booklet’s reaching description of it as “a modern funk masterpiece” belonging “in any “ultimate” Hayes collection” rings clunkingly hollow.

Nevertheless, “Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?” might be the only Isaac Hayes purchase you ever need to make; it’s certainly a worthy, bargainatious introduction to the great man’s music.

ISAAC HAYES Hot Buttered Soul (Stax)

I hadn’t viewed this album as a high priority purchase, as I already had three of its four tracks on the excellent compilation “Ultimate Isaac Hayes: Can You Dig It?”. Well, that’ll learn me, because in its full-fat form “Hot Buttered Soul” is one of the most astonishing albums I’ve ever heard, within its titular genre or without it. 

To call Isaac’s version of “Walk On By” a cover is, frankly, an insult. He takes the skeleton of Bacharach and David’s pretty little bittersweet pop tune and builds a symphony around it: an acrid, acid electric guitar stings like a whip, lashing out amidst a Greek chorus of backing vocalists, mocking woodwind and a riff Tchaikovsky would probably have been pretty pleased with. There’s even a drum solo that makes Ringo’s effort on “The End” sound elaborate.  Amidst all this there’s Isaac, casually embellishing the plot with asides and ad-libs. As reinventions go, it’s surely in the same league as John Coltrane’s hot-rodding of “My Favorite Things”.

The album’s sole self-penned selection, the Parliament-prefiguring linguistics of “Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic” is the only time the album threatens to outstay its welcome. Hayes growls and rolls around the soundstage, dragging a piano around behind him, whilst the Bar-Keys lay down an indomitable funk groove, seemingly oblivious to the antics of the headliner. “One Woman”, is, if anything, even finer than Al Green’s version, Isaac caught in the middle of a love triangle in rhapsodic agony.

You need stamina to cope with the album’s fourth and final track. At 19 minutes, this version of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” makes the seven minute edit on “Ultimate Isaac Hayes” look, well, emasculated. Over a sustained organ chord and “Bolero”-regular percussion, Isaac takes eight leisurely minutes to build a whole storyline around Jimmy Webb’s lyrics, investing his narration with the same passion and flexibility he brings to his singing. It’s a sermon on love and loss, the sound of the words almost as important as their message. There are several thrilling, goosebumpy moments when he bursts fleetingly into melody, as if to underscore his point. As the song sweeps to a conclusion, he warns “I’m gonna moan” before proceeding to do so, as if in sad, sweet, ecstatic release.

“Hot Buttered Soul” is a teetering, preposterous monument. It is its own far-fetched, glorious conclusion. There’s nowhere you can go from here; these songs are already as big as they could possibly get. It might be too bo(o)mbastic for some listeners; you really do need to enjoy your soul music slathered in that titular cholesterol. If you can stomach it, though, music rarely gets more awesome than this.

Mobile Fidelity’s SACD of this title is supposed to be revelatory but, much as I’d love to hear it, it’s currently 86 on Amazon Marketplace, so for the immediate future I’ll have to make do with the current vinyl version, available for a tiny fraction of that price. It’s a Scorpio (boo! Hiss!) and whilst it’s not great by any stretch of the imagination, sounding harsh and muddled at the least provocation,  and riddled with the scraping sounds associated with shoddy pressing and quality control, it’s not so bad that it makes me want to take the album off and listen to something else entirely, like some Scorpios do.