JAMES HUNTER > The Hard Way

James Hunter is one of those “overnight sensations” who’s actually been out there playing for over twenty years, beginning with a long stand in the U.K. as “Howlin’ Wilf and the Vee-Jays.” Ironically, (or confusingly) he was nominated for a Grammy for his 2006 CD People Gonna Talk, it was in the “Traditional Blues” category-when it was clear to all that the sound brought forward there was that of late-50s to early-60s proto-soul pop.Label: HEAR MUSIC
Rating: ★★½☆☆

James Hunter is one of those “overnight sensations” who’s actually been out there playing for over twenty years, beginning with a long stand in the U.K. as “Howlin’ Wilf and the Vee-Jays.” Ironically, (or confusingly) he was nominated for a Grammy for his 2006 CD People Gonna Talk, it was in the “Traditional Blues” category-when it was clear to all that the sound brought forward there was that of late-50s to early-60s proto-soul pop. They got that “traditional” part right, though-in the sense that when Hunter and his sax-bearing soul band play, they mean to play it “the way it was played,” and also, with an emphasis that verges of fetishism, recording it “as it was recorded.” This new CD, like its predecessor, was recorded at the Toe-Tag studio in London, a site featuring old style analog equipment, the recording process as unadorned, unprocessed and “live” as possible. This time out, there’s a fuller band sound, and fans will enjoy that variation.

Hunter’s rhythmically spot-on, velvet growl vocals are regularly compared to Sam Cooke’s by those with no other point of soul reference, mainly on the basis of some of his phrasing, not on his tone, which is actually much more like that of the wonderful, under-recalled Little Willie John, and occasionally, of Charlie Rich. So, no, the former “Wilf” did not change his stage name to “Same Cooke,” but he must have taken the reference to heart, because the title track on this new one, “The Hard Way,” is pretty much a minor variation on Sam’s “What a Wonderful World,” which gets to the nub of the issue here-the limitations.

While Van Morrison played with the Jackie Wilson’s sound, Rod Stewart (and for that matter, Otis Redding) with Cooke’s, Steve Winwood with Ray Charles’, sooner or later hey all arrived at recognizably distinctive styles and contributions of their own. Hunter’s traditionalist act, like retro honky tonk or Dixieland or ambient lounge, may stun live just for being this way-for recreating that sound now. But there must some way of updating the lyrics in Hunter’s songs of soul “love advice” to specifically recognize the flavor of relationships circa 2008 and updating of the sound to suit the same…some way to stamp the dozen quite listenable, pleasant soul tracks here as more than “proficient” is called for. Remembered talents like Mssrs. John, Cooke and Rich took leaps like that. It’s why we still care.