Friday, May 23, 2008

Class Act

James Hunter - The Hard Way (Universal Classics, 2008)

I often wonder why some retrogressive facsimiles of classic pop music irritate me whilst some hold me captive with their charms. Unsung British guitarist and singer James Hunter’s brand of Rhythm and Blues classicism undoubtedly falls into the latter category. Perhaps it’s just that Hunter seems to inhabit his chosen idiom so effortlessly and without even the slightest hint of self-consciousness.

Whilst ‘The Hard Way’, again recorded by Liam Watson at Toe Rag Studios, doesn’t exactly do much to develop his already entertaining canon, it’s a welcome serving of more-of-the-same. This is a similar template to that sleekly modernised by Mark Ronson for Amy Winehouse – but Hunter being a suave but unassuming character, is far less likely to shift millions of units and become tiresome tabloid fodder. He also feels no need for any contemporary context, instead playing the music as straight but as spiritedly as possible.

If there has been a progression between ‘People Gonna Talk’ and this set, it lies in the greater variety of material, and in the even more refined arrangements. Whilst the previous album was dominated by its steely horn sections and spiky guitars, here sedate backing vocals and even tuned percussion create a more delicate, lush texture, particularly on the sophisticated and subtle ‘Tell Her’ and the memorable title track.

This doesn’t prevent Hunter from getting into that old-fashioned dancehall jive vibe he replicates so expertly though. The blistering ‘Do Me No Favours’, with its dusty, swinging beat and searing guitar solo, ably demonstrates his nuanced understanding of this music, as well as his righteous enthusiasm for it. Such qualities are demonstrated many times on ‘The Hard Way’ – particularly on ‘Jacqueline’ and ‘Believe Me Baby’, the latter ushered in by some splendid boogie-tinged piano.

As the previous album suggested, Hunter is at his best when he combines the offbeat emphasis of reggae and ska with his more soulful streak. The wonderful, bittersweet ‘Carina’, all melancholy string arrangement and delicate melody, is one of the real gems of this set (naming songs after girls remains a predominant preoccupation, and the exuberant and celebratory ‘Jacqueline’ provides a neat counterpoint to the uncertainty and wistfulness of ‘Carina’). Similarly, ‘Class Act’ consummately combines a ska lilt with a light blues shuffle.

Hunter’s main strength remains his voice, which is consistently understated, wisely emphasising phrasing over power. Watson and Hunter have allowed more imperfections to creep through this time though – Hunter’s voice is frequently grittier and more vulnerable here than we’ve come to expect. Perhaps this is due to the tyranny and rapidity of Watson’s recording methods – on this occasion it’s very much to the record’s benefit though. Whilst the band is precision perfect, Hunter sounds more spontaneous and raw, allowing real feeling to seep in, and undermining any sense that his music might be chiefly formulaic and inauthentic. Who could resist such a straightforwardly enjoyable album?

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