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Music Review: James Hunter – The Hard Way

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I know — I know I know I know I know — that James Hunter is not a black soul man from the Delta who died in a tragic plane crash (or a motel shooting, or a drug overdose) back in 1962. And yet, every time his songs come up on my shuffle, I’m at least halfway into the second verse before I realize that it’s not Jackie Wilson, or Sam Cooke, or Otis Redding, or James Carr, or Arthur Alexander I’m listening to.

I’ve even spoken to the man on the telephone; I know how thick his working-class Essex accent is (He’s from Colchester, England). If it weren’t for that wonderful gravelly edge to his speaking voice, the touch of velvet in his lower register, you’d never know it was one and the same man.

Hunter’s remarkably humble about the stroke of luck – or rather, the series of strokes of luck — that took him from singing in the subways of London to recording four CDs, two of them also released in the U.S., and touring with the likes of Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin. After the first two CDs, he reminds me quickly, he was back busking in the subways again for a bit – maybe that’s why he doesn’t take any of his recent success for granted.

What’s even more impressive is that Hunter isn’t just doing covers of old R&B classics – all the songs on his new album, The Hard Way, are his own originals. “Really, if you’d see the words written down, they could be any genre,” Hunter insists. Well, that’s perhaps an exaggeration – with songs like the ultra-smooth “Tell Her” (a classic advice song), the seductive cha-cha “Hand It over,” or the finger-wagging warning song “Believe Me Baby,” he’s plugging into tried-and-tried Brill Building pop conventions. And any time you title a song with a girl’s name – as in the creamy bossa nova “Carina” or the Fats-Domino-channeling “Jacqueline” – you’ve got to know there’s a tradition behind you.

Still, he’s got a point – you could redo a song like the edgy kiss-off “Don’t Do Me No Favors” with a hard rock beat, or the anti-suicide counsel of “Till the End” as a melancholy folker – though then you’d miss the delights of Hunter’s slouchy guitar work. And sure, you could even do “She’s Got a Way” as a brooding emo track – but it’s Hunter’s Little-Richard-style squeals of delight that kick that one into another dimension.

It’s not just the arrangements that give these songs soul. Just look at the album’s final track, the lilting acoustic “Strange But True” – it’s got nothing but Hunter’s textured vocal and a delicately plucked guitar, and yet the deft syncopation, the gracefully skittering melodic line, are the essence of R&B, and pure joy.

Hunter’s uncanny command of the American early-soul vernacular was unique back in 1994 when he first recorded Believe What I Say. There’s been a spate of British neo-soul artists since then, with everyone from Adele and Duffy to James Morrison and Amy Winehouse trying to get in on the act. Hunter laughs ruefully and admits that he’d have been really frustrated if he’d given up the soul sound – as many advised him to do – and then seen others ride it to success. “You’ve got to find what your quality is, and stick with that,” he advises.

There is one peril, however, in banking your career on recreating a sound of the past – it doesn’t give you a lot of room to develop in new directions. With The Hard Way, Hunter and his longtime band (drummer Jonathan Lee, saxophonists Damian Hand and Lee Badeau, bassist Jason Wilson, and organist Kyle Koehler) met that challenge by upping the production ante — adding strings to the durable horn section, for instance, and inviting the venerable Allen Toussaint to sit in on piano for three tracks.

But to keep the whole thing from getting too glossy, they recorded most tracks all at one go, over a two-week period, with the band playing on one track, Hunter’s vocals on the other. What you get on the CD is basically a one-take live performance, though the best of several takes of that song. This strategy only pays off, however, when you’re a sizzling live performer backed by a marvelously tight band.

“The spirit of the whole music is in how it was recorded,” Hunter says. “A lot of people get that old sound with effects, but it’s misguided to do it that way.” Lose the freshness and energy of the performance, Hunter’s convinced, and you lose your connection to the original records that inspired his sound.

If anything, The Hard Way comes blasting out of the speakers with even more raw vitality than People Gonna Talk did. James Hunter found this groove years ago; now he’s found the confidence to carve it even deeper. There’s really nothing “neo” about James Hunter’s soul sound, when you think about it — it's more like reincarnation. It'd be almost spooky, if you weren't too busy dancing to care. 

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About Holly Hughes