The Hard Way
3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Take one part Jackie Wilson (for soul) one part Sam Cooke (for style), one part Brian Setzer (band leadership qualities), and one part George Thorogood (for showmanship), and what do you have? James Hunter. His latest release, “The Hard Way,” blasts sassy syncopated sax-based retro soul for the new millennium that’s easy to appreciate.
Born in Colchester, England, Hunter was drawn to the sounds of R&B at an early age. Not surprisingly, one of his favorite records growing up was Jackie Wilson’s tongue-rattling “Reet Petite.” “The Hard Way” is his third effort, following his U.K. only 1996 debut, “Believe What I Say,” and his acclaimed 2001 follow-up, “People Gonna Talk.” He may look like Brit comedian Eddie Izzard, and at its worst his voice takes on John Hiatt’s goofy air-trapped tone, but when the sweaty groove locks in and Hunter curbs his urge to strangle his guitar, you’ll say to yourself, “Jeez, this sounds familiar. Where have I heard this before?” Hunter is of this time, but his sound clearly isn’t. Many of Hunter’s childhood influences blast out of the mix, including Ray Charles, Georgie Fame, and Allen Toussaint. Toussaint appears on the album, and his brand of syrupy New Orleans gumbo permeates a trio of tunes, “The Hard Way,” “Til the End,” and “Believe Me Baby.”
The lead-off track and album namesake, “The Hard Way” is sax heavy with vibes and swingin’ strings. Hunter’s vocal style is very much like Sam Cooke’s; classy soul with airy, effortless phrasing, so much so that “The Hard Way” bears a striking resemblance to Cooke’s “What a Wonderful World.”
Hunter downshifts into ballad mode with “Tell Her,” a lively bongo samba with honeyed back up vocals that’ll bring to mind the David Ruffin-era Temptations. You can picture the singers in matching suits gathered around the microphone tapping out choreographed sidesteps as they plead, “…Tell her that you love her…”
James feels the burping sax beat and spits out a vocal like James Brown with his hot pants on fire in “Don’t Do Me No Favours.” You’ll even excuse the sting of Hunter’s rampant, incompetent guitar solo, (his throat’s got the groove, but his hands clearly don’t). It’s followed by Kyle Koehler turning out a Georgie Fame jazzy solo on the Hammond, and Lee Badau bending some serious reed during his sax spotlight. You’ll do yourself a favor by adding “Don’t Don’t Do Me No Favours” to your IPOD shuffle. It’s a prime example of Hunter’s punchy power-packed sound. Listening to it, it’s not hard to figure out why none other than Van Morrison thinks so highly of Hunter – he sounds like Morrison, circa 1970, before he ventured too far into the mystic: “Save your good intentions, for someone you can trust. ‘Cos once you hand it over, you won’t see me for dust. So don’t do me no favours, just let me live and learn. Don’t do me no favours, that I can’t do in return.”
In case you missed his last album, the most radio friendly song, “People Gonna Talk,” used pizzicato strings and a Ska influence. “Carina” is a rerun with a more prominent string section and a distant desert pedal steel to differentiate it from “People Gonna Talk.” The sax is 50s dance floor clutch-your-daddy classy. “Carina” is an enjoyable carbon copy equal to its predecessor, so if it worked once, why not slip it in again? Al Green made a career out of the same beat (courtesy of the late Al Jackson), and Graham Nash was honest enough to title his sequel to “Sleep Song” “Another Sleep Song.” If James has found a comfort zone groove and wants to repeat it, I vote yes.
“She’s Got A Way” has got Georgie Fame’s “Yeh Yeh” and Ray Charles’ “What I Say” written all over it. It’s alley cat blues with rolling percussion and hard-hitting horns. Hunter does over do the vocal gymnastics: “You got a way with youoooooooewew.” Mike Smith (The Dave Clark Five’s lead singer) he ain’t, but he does have Smith’s contagious joy for performing, even though he doesn’t always sound natural squealing or screaming. A little self control please, James. It’s also painfully obvious that James is a dreadful guitar player. His solos leap into the air like an elephant in a tutu and dart all over the place threatening to implode your good time. In short, he’s hunting for a riff. Thankfully, Hunter’s solos are short and don’t sap his high-energy performance. Give organist Kyle Koehler credit for finding a way to make his solos sizzle and for Jonathan Lee’s deceptively precise wildman percussion.
“Til the End” is low key, chitlin’ circuit Jimmy Reed blues. Hunter carries the day with his vocal, which uses the adenoid-strapped style of Boz Scaggs. But please James, lay off of the guitar. I’ve heard dying poultry that sounded less desperate. Here his guitar massacring mimics the harmonics of B.B. King with the scattershot approach of Kim Simmons. He’s truly inept, at times sounding so lost he might as well be playing his guitar with a skill saw, which might help, because eventually he’d cut through it and he’d have to stop strumming. “Til the End” is a little too laid back for my taste, but after the third-gear approach of the rest of the material it’s a good idea to throw in a slow, simmering one once in a while.
Hunter is able to fashion a different sound for the horn section for each cut. On “Hand It Over,” the horns are gentler and foggier, balancing the sound between the ooohing backing ground vocals, plucky strings and Caribbean sway. “Hand it Over” has the easy going pace of “On the Boardwalk” and the friendly vibe of some of the mid-Western folk/blues Ry Cooder eased into in the 90s.
Hunter steps up the intensity again to the Jackie Wilson level with “Jacqueline.” There’s even an “Ooo—weee” from Hunter that’ll bring back Jackie’s “Lonely Teardrops” (coincidently Hunter borrows the “say you will” line from Jackie’s song). And mark this down... Hunter finally yanks a harmless solo that sounds as if he’s played the instrument before.
“Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” echoes Ray Charles’ “What I Say” and “Unchain My Heart” with a heavy tom-tom beat. James still won’t put the bloody guitar down. James? James! This time he takes two solos, displaying the type of speed that would make Montezuma’s Revenge jealous and will leave you feeling equally ravaged. Hunter hacks out bits and pieces of Brian Setzer, Gene Vincent and Link Wray, which is fine, but not all at once. But when James screams, you’ll swear its Jackie Wilson, and that makes up for his preposterous playing.
You get more of Ray’s influence in “Believe Me Baby,” with Jonathan Lee’s clip-clopping drums, and Koehler pounding the keys as if he was in a Dixieland gin mill poking out the eyes of a rival. This is one of Hunter’s tunes when the lyrics, arrangement and his caged animal screams all come together to cook up a satisfying, soulful stew: “Well I love you baby, and I always will. But your big mouth ‘bout to get me killed.”
Hunter goes solo with the closer, “Strange But True,” an acoustic warbler with Sam Cooke meets rockabilly overtones. Because it’s only James, the song has a living room demo feel to it. It’s polished, but could have been much more. I would have preferred how went out with a brassy bang, as in “Believe Me Baby,” but it gives you an idea how he creates his songs.
In 1981 new wave artist Joe Jackson surprised his fans the album “Jumpin’ Jive,” a collection of swing and jump tunes originally sung by Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. It jumped in places, particularly Joe’s rendition of Calloway’s “We the Cats Shall Hep Ya,” but because of Jackson’s previous incarnation as an angry punkster, fans thought the effort was more jive than jump. James Hunter’s retro soul is genuine – you can hear it in every yelp and funky riff. Do yourself a favour and hunt this one down.