Remembering What You Need

(This is an old review, originally part of a longer piece that never came out anywhere.)

The James Hunter Six, from England, act as protectors of the past, keepers of an old form—soul—and an equally old tradition—white English singers imitating the American soul music they love.  The group’s new album, Minute By Minute, plays like a record from the mid-60s, jumbling the bite of James Brown’s early forays into funk and the relentless stomp of Wilson Pickett. All the songs are short, tight, and easily identifiable as “soul” (though there are occasional hints of reggae or Latin rhythms). Minute By Minute moves at the pace of a quick march. A guitar, piano, and organ lay down the songs’ sturdy foundation, while a compact horn section pops, jabs and slides, adding drama and color to the sound.

James Hunter—who has released albums under his name since 1996, and collaborated with Van Morrison on several occasions, further cementing his old-school appeal—handles the vocal duties on the album.  His voice cracks up when he hits the high notes, and it contains the raspiness that signals his lineage in blues and southern soul.  (In the 60s, southern soul studios preferred their male singers to be capable of spewing gravel and fire in the manner of Otis Redding, Pickett, and Percy Sledge, while the studios in Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia went in more for sweetness and polish.) Hunter’s singing has an appealing croaky quality to it, and he is capable of launching screams that prove the depths of a soul-singer’s emotion and commitment. Although Hunter is English, you wouldn’t know it—copying American singers, he developed his own unique quasi-American intonation.

On the song “Chicken Switch,” Hunter sings “If at first you don’t succeed/Remember what you want and what you need.”  This act of remembering what you want may be especially easy for him, because his desire is clear: to sing as if music has not evolved in the last forty years.  This approach provides an easy and appealing entry point.

 

But artists also take risks by evoking the sounds of bygone greats.  “This is nice, but why don’t I just listen to the old stuff?”  To be labeled a “revivalist” can be like artistic purgatory, banished to the part of the record store that only gets explored by baby-boomers hoping to relive the good old days. If you need reviving, you know things are getting bad. But perhaps cataloging history is important in its own right; without it, it’s hard to create something new, to set oneself apart from trends. James Hunter sticks resolutely to his aging guns, and other artists may begin to see new ways forward.

 

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