The Runners-Up is a monthly column, wherein we will analyze an album that isn’t the consensus first choice or most canonical title by a given artist, but is one worthy of more attention than it’s received to date. The album we’ll look at this month is…
Truck Turner (Stax)
Here’s a question I used to ask myself every so often: what’s Isaac Hayes‘ third-best album? Even before I started digging into the man’s back catalogue—from 1967’s lounge-jazz jam session debut Presenting Isaac Hayes to the mixed-bag post-Stax disco stuff—the top two slots seemed easy enough to figure out. There was Hot Buttered Soul, the 1969 solo sophomore release on which the songwriter reinvented himself as a reinterpreter of the contemporary American pop songbook through a filter of orchestral psychedelic soul. And then there’s Shaft, the soundtrack that made him the Henry Mancini of blaxploitation and revealed his flair for scene-setting and motif-driven eclecticism. But after doing some digging through his peak early-mid ’70s catalogue several years back, through To Be Continued and Black Moses and Live at the Sahara Tahoe, hearing Hayes’ soundtrack to Truck Turner finally led me to discover what his third-best record was.
By which I mean the Shaft soundtrack. I’m going to lay it on the line here and declare Truck Turner to be Hayes’ second-best album, even if no single track on it is any real competition for “Theme from Shaft” when it comes to defining (almost) everything that made Hayes great in less than five minutes. What Truck Turner does have going for it, though, is the fact that it’s a double LP’s worth of compositions that show off every musical trick and innovation at Hayes’ disposal right before his artistic peak was behind him. You want a ramped-up title theme that says as much about a single man’s badassery in as little time as possible, preferably with the assistance of a chorus of women shouting the dude’s name? You got it. Want some deep-cut slow jam love songs with his voice drizzled over it like some kind of narcotic syrup? There’s plenty of those. Want enough sample fodder to choke an MPC? Get yourself a copy.
While Hayes’ versatility shines through in all his best albums, there’s something about the selections on Truck Turner that seem to push things a bit further—maybe because it’s not just another Isaac Hayes soundtrack, but the Isaac Hayes soundtrack to an Isaac Hayes movie. As a film, Truck Turner is wildly, knowingly ridiculous: its cast includes Nichelle Nichols (best known as Lt. Uhura from Star Trek) in her only blaxploitation role as a foul-mouthed madam with half of the movie’s best lines, Yaphet Kotto as a far superior bad-guy heavy than his cornball “Mr. Big” role in Live and Let Die, and Hayes as the titular bounty hunter with a klepto shoplifter ladyfriend and a shirt that smells like cat piss. With that kind of mise-en-scene to work with, Hayes went all out and put together seventeen tracks’ worth of material that lent every last ounce of his artistic weight to a movie that, frankly, isn’t especially deserving.
The vocal cuts range from solid enough to fantastic—the latter category belonging primarily to the title theme, which is like “Theme from Shaft” on uppers, all rubber-kneed rhythm and sucker-punch horns. Meanwhile, “You’re in My Arms Again,” “A House Full of Girls,” and “Give it to Me” are Hayes in seductive, sensitive loverman mode, and if you ignore the goofy circumstances of Hayes writing themes for his own love scenes—in other words, scoring himself scoring—they’re every bit as smooth as his best circa-’70 ballads. But most of the record is taken up by instrumentals, and the majority of those lean towards a mixture of fuzzed-out raw funk and airy soul jazz that embodies Hayes’ street-level sophistication. A few cuts—“Driving in the Sun,” “Now We’re One,” “House of Beauty”—emphasize a noticeable jazz influence that add some unpredictable spark and intricate musicianship to what could’ve otherwise been unremarkable downtempo background cues. Others, like “Blue’s Crib,” “Dorinda’s Party,” and the breakbeat favorite “Breakthrough,” lean heavily on fuzzed-out funk and soul that seem tailor-made to soundtrack parties long after the film left theaters.
And two tracks in particular stand out as classics in their own right. “Pursuit of the Pimpmobile” is the longest cut on the album at just over nine minutes, and while its car-chase origins fit the film well, it doubles as a monster of a proto-disco jam, working its way up from a sneaky hi-hat curb-crawl to a frenzied, tense conga-driven groove. On the other side of the LP—and the other side of the spectrum—is another extended workout, “The Insurance Company,” the theme for a trio of assassins sent to terrorize Truck Turner. That song’s an oozing, skulking, suspenseful trudge that rides off flanged piano stabs and reverbed plastic-bottle rattles, then erupts into a horn-driven, icy-fingered slab of psych-soul that sounds like Bernard Herrmann workshopping with the J.B.’s. If there’s anything Hayes did in his musical career that’s more diabolically chilling, I haven’t heard it yet.
Unfortunately, neither the movie nor the album were blockbuster hits—at least not on the level of Shaft. As celluloid immortilization goes, Hayes probably won more admirers as the Duke in Escape from New York or (god help us) Chef on South Park. And this soundtrack is only commercially available as a two-fer that lumps it in with the music from Tough Guys—itself a fine record and the first soundtrack Hayes released in ’74, but not nearly as expansively ambitious as its followup. Hayes wouldn’t record anything else this front-to-back great for the rest of his career, and for the rest of the ’70s it usually took him three or four LPs to even bring up as many ideas as this one soundtrack does in its 72 minutes. But it’s not necessary to think of Truck Turner as the last great album from Isaac Hayes‘ prime—all you need to do is hear it as a good personification of what his prime actually meant.
“Pursuit of the Pimpmobile”:
Just so folks don’t get it twisted, ‘Truck Turner’ really is an entertaining movie in a trashy fun kind of way. It’s just that the soundtrack’s a bit more sophisticated and/or classier.