CD Review of The Hard Way by James Hunter
Recommended if you like
Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Pat Boyack & the Prowlers
Label
Hear Music
James Hunter: The Hard Way

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD

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I
t's hard to put one's finger on just what's most amazing about this record: One, that anyone's making doo-woppy R&B and trying to sound like the next Sam Cooke; two, that it's a white English dude who's doing it; three, that it sounds phenomenal, which it does; or four, that the guy's 2005 CD People Gonna Talk got nominated for a Grammy in – get this, "traditional blues," which it's anything but – and he got beat by good old Ike Turner. Imagine that. And last but not least, five: The followup, The Hard Way, sounds even more daringly retro, with producer Liam Watson (the analog genius who helped cook the White Stripes' Elephant) recording straight to one-track with scant few overdubs.

The record flat-out sounds clean and beautiful – like the first time you heard Booker T & the MGs’ records on CD after finally sending those worn-out vinyl LPs to pasture – especially on the ensemble tracks where Hunter features his horn section heavily in the arrangement, namely "Don't Do Me No Favours" and "Class Act." Those cuts, I swear, you could drop into the middle of the Atlantic Rhythm & Blues 1947-74 box set, in about the "1961" era, and you wouldn't be able to pick out this white soul superfan (he likes early, early Motown soul, before the label got famous – which constitutes a very, very small slice of the catalog) among the titans of the era.

James Hunter

Don't take that to mean, however, that those two songs are the best of the CD. It's all good, from start to finish. For this old Motown/Memphis/Muscle Shoals purist, it's hard to name the pick of the litter: For instance, the acoustic guitar number "Strange But True" affords listeners a close-up look at Hunter's gorgeous soul inflections, while "Tell Her" and its mushy harmonies will make any old doo-wop fan just melt, it's so freaking authentic – as in, not a dumb Billy Joel wishful-thinking knockoff, but an extension of the genre, four and a half decades after the fact. "Jacqueline," a song Hunter wrote about his wife, sounds like a perfect 1950s Sun Studio Memphis soul-rockabilly number. Forced to choose, the Ray Charles-esque "She's Got a Way" would have to win this writer’s personal blue ribbon, because it takes balls to attempt anything Ray Charles style; not only is it anti-commercial, but you're inviting comparisons to the Genius of Soul. So, on top of balls, it takes talent to pull it off – and Hunter does it, because his pipes might just be in Sam Cooke’s league (a comparison he calls ludicrous in last month's conversation with me).

The Hard Way's an album for the ages. It probably won't sell, because that's what America does with its best records – leaves them to the cool people of the underground to rave about while the record stores crowd it with junk like Fergie and Soulja Boy. Hunter, formerly a railway worker-turned-streetcorner-busker, probably would like it to sell millions of units, but if his joyful singing on The Hard Way is any indication, if it doesn't he'll be okay. Getting the music out of his head and on to tape – and we're not saying "tape" in the metaphoric way; we really mean it, as Watson used that crusty old tech for this album – was its own reward.

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