Neo-soul singer Anthony Hamilton possesses one of the best voices to emerge in the music industry over the last several years.—a powerful and individualistic voice that seems to have come out of nowhere. His hickory-smoked vocals have set him apart from many of the male vocalists who claim that they are bringing back real soul music, but lack the vocal prowess or experience to do so. Hamilton has earned mainstream success with two platinum albums—Comin From Where I’m From (2003) and Ain’t Nobody Worrying (2005)—and it seems that his voice is everywhere.
Recently unearthed is Southern Comfort, a collection of songs that was to have been his first album. This is the album that Hamilton spent the early part of his musical life creating, during those hungry days between 2000 and 2002. As with any Hamilton project, the focal point is his vocals. Albums like this remind listeners that the artist they thought was an overnight sensation was actually trying to get in the door much longer than they knew.
On this collection, the music presents the feeling of being in a smoky club, listening to a seasoned blues veteran still trying to find his way. Hamilton’s struggle to be heard by the industry can be found in every track. He refuses to conform to what the typical male singer sounds like and sings about, which makes him hard to categorize and dangerously unsafe for industry folk. However, Southern Comfort pretty much follows the same formula as his other projects: a mix of unrequited love songs, hard-hitting social commentary and raw, passionate vocals. Surprisingly, this early set is nearly as polished as his current music.
One thing that is consistent about Hamilton is that he is not trying to be the great balladeer or love song king. He is only being who he is—singing what he feels and feeling what he’s singing about. Although the number of love songs here are equal to the social commentary tracks, they are not about the hope of love, just the regret of it. The first track, “They Don’t Know”, sets the tone for the album. Hamilton sings, “They don’t know the struggles I be going through / They don’t know what I’m feeling inside / They trying to steal my dignity.” He goes back and forth about not being understood, which seems to be an underlying theme to most of his music.
Interestingly enough, because Southern Comfort is raw and in-your-face, which may have been a reason that it wasn’t picked up initially, during a period where pretty R&B boys ruled the charts. This is clearly an adult album, a disc you have to be ready for. A lot of the tracks are not “radio friendly” in the usual manner, although musically and lyrically they are great. There is a lot of anger present, and you wonder if we are bearing witness not only to a man mad at society, but to someone bitter at nearly everything.
Although musically Southern Comfort is consistent with the Anthony Hamilton formula, there are differences between the Hamilton of 2002 and 2007. Hamilton 2002’s instrument is actually more versatile and demonstrates a less hurried and smoother delivery than in his later work. There is a raw purity and soulful sincerity here that is strictly about the music. It’s content, and he’s not about impressing anyone else—yet. We get more of his pain and vulnerability in this period, before the industry gets him.
“Magnolia’s Room” is a love song about regret; as much as it hurts him to beg, he would like his love to come back to her room, where he has it as it was, waiting for them to be as they were. It’s a bittersweet song, with an underlying tenderness that is different for Hamilton. “Why” is a very poignant song, one with lyrics that could be applied to Hamilton and his place in the industry: “Why do they keep judging me / Why won’t they just let me be me?” It reminds me of the soul singers of the ‘70s, with their political statements and underlying social agendas. Southern Comfort includes other songs of social commentary; “Don’t Say What You Won’t Do”, “Trouble” and “Never Give Up” all speak of prejudices and self-examination.
A song that should have been left out is the jarring “Glad U Called”. With plenty of expletives, Hamilton sings about smoking weed, gang banging, robbery, sleeping around and any other vice you can think of—but there is an angel that stops him from going any further. Even nearby Hamilton’s social commentary tracks, it seems out of place. The love song “Please”, nearly six minutes long, also could have been left in the vault. Hamilton’s singing is more like background vocals, with him cooing and purring his vocals. It’s a style that’s out of step with his talent.
The smooth soul ballads “Falling In Love Again” and “Better Love” demonstrate a more vulnerable side of the artist, in the midst of the anger and messages. The last, and most pleasant, track “Sailin Away” is a breezy simple song that ends the album on a feel-good note. Overall, Southern Comfort is a good CD, but not a great one. Still it shows the progress and growth of one of today’s most important male vocalists.
// Notes from the Road
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