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Checking out a couple of recent Stax reissues.


Since California-based Concord Music Group relaunched Stax as an active label a couple of years ago, there's been a steady stream of reissues from the label's later, post-Atlantic-affiliated years, including a couple of stellar recent ones in Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul and the duet compilation Boy Meets Girl.

Stax will get more attention for its upcoming release of Hayes' Shaft soundtrack, because, for all his legitimate iconic status, that album's title smash is the only Hayes music most know intimately, and because people forget that the rest is just movie music.

But the definitive expression of Hayes' solo artistry is 1969's Hot Buttered Soul. It is Hayes' second solo album, but it's the one that announced him as a major artist. The previous Presenting Isaac Hayes (1968) had something of a side-project feel and was not a commercial success. No one seemed to expect much of Hayes' second album either. It was recorded in a rush by new label chief Al Bell to release 27 albums at one time in an attempt to replenish the label's catalog after losing the rights to earlier material in a break from Atlantic Records.

Hayes took advantage of this freedom to let his mind — and his music — run wild. The entire album consisted of only four tracks, including two unlikely showcase covers: a 12-minute version of "Walk on By," the Burt Bacharach/Hal David number that had been a hit for Dionne Warwick, and a nearly 19-minute version of Jimmy Webb's pop-country "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," which was a hit for Glen Campbell.

Hayes was attracted to the orchestral underpinnings in the songs and expanded these elements to the breaking point while also converting the songs into a rougher brand of soul music. This digitally remastered re-release adds the singles edit of each song as a bonus track, reducing "Walk on By" to four and a half minutes and "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" to under seven minutes.

Hayes roughs up and weirds up "Walk on By" while retaining its high-toned, orchestral veneer, running an extended guitar solo into church-meets-free-funk organ riffing and converting the song's story into Hayes-speak: "You put the hurt on, you socked it to me mama, when you said goodbye, so please walk on by." I'm down for the full 12 minutes.

"By the Time I Get to Phoenix": not so much. Perhaps it's a spiritual failing, but I can never maintain my attention through Hayes' endless intro (monotone) monologue and single organ note. I nod off or my mind wanders before the song (finally) kicks in, despite the promise of "I'm gonna bring it on down to Soulsville." In this case, give me the single edit, please.

But neither of these signature hits are the most memorable music on Hot Buttered Soul. That goes to the mostly instrumental "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic," a nearly 10-minute hard-funk jam highlighted by jarring piano licks later memorably sampled by Public Enemy on their "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."

Ultimately, though, Hot Buttered Soul's importance is greater than its music or even its role in launching Hayes into superstardom. This is the album that announced soul music as an album form rather than just a singles medium, thus setting the stage for such masterpieces to come as Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, Stevie Wonder's Talking Book, and Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On.

Another product of the 27-album push that produced Hot Buttered Soul was the double-album duets compilation Boy Meets Girl, which paired various Stax solo artists in different combinations.

This re-release reconfigures that long-out-of-print initial compilation into a single-CD set, adding a ringer in William Bell and Judy Clay's classic "Private Number," a couple of Stax recordings not on the initial package from the blue-eyed soul duo Delaney & Bonnie, and an '80s-era cover of "Private Number" by Brits Spencer Davis and Dusty Springfield.

Outside of the familiar "Private Number," most readers will be unfamiliar with the majority of the recordings on Boy Meets Girl, which makes it a collection packed with finds. There's Mavis Staples and Eddie Floyd on a strutting version of the Janis Joplin-identified "Piece of My Heart." A-listers Johnnie Taylor and Carla Thomas pair up for the energetic "Just Keep on Loving Me," whose popping rhythm is similar to Taylor's smash "Who's Makin' Love?"

Delaney & Bonnie lead the classic Stax house band through the Hayes-Porter song "My Baby Specializes," while Bell and Staples come together on the Hayes-Porter "I Ain't Particular."

A couple of the more intriguing pairings are early Stax stalwarts Thomas and Bell pairing up for a somewhat orchestral reading of the Everly Brothers' "All I Have To Do Is Dream" and Floyd and the rarely featured Cleotha Staples on a bluesy version of Chuck Willis' soul classic "It's Too Late."

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