If you’re at all familiar with the career of Paul Weller, and would allow a parallel to be drawn, the first three tracks on this album represent Greg Humphrey’s “Style Council” period. That’s not as flippant as it may sound, however—we’re talking about respectful blue-eyed soul here. Greg, the former guiding force of North Carolina alterna-jangle-power-poppers Dillon Fence, isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel with Hobex (founded in 1996), he’s just paying tribute to the more soulful side of his record collection (Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder). And he seems to be having a good time.
Those first three tracks (recorded by former Ben Folds Five bassist Robert Sledge) back Humphreys’ appealing soulful rasp with a full band, complete with keyboards and horn section, accomplishing a smooth enough (if somewhat lyrically redundant) ‘70s soul feel. (There should be a parental advisory sticker on this album, though—both “Sold Down the River” and “Ain’t Pushin’ Baby” unleash xylophone solos on the unsuspecting listener.) The muted trumpet on the “Ain’t Pushin’ Baby” pretty much seals the Style Council comparison (no, not a bad thing), while “Say Yeah!” is a bit too Blues Brothers (Blues Brothers 2000, that is).
Nevertheless, the real story lies in the other six tracks on Wisteria, and here the album lives up to its title. Wisteria blooms all over the porches in the novels of southerner William Faulkner; it’s the scent of nostalgia and reflection. On tracks four through nine, a stripped down, three-piece version of North Carolina natives Hobex peddle their own brand of low-key nostalgia: The songs were literally recorded during a back-porch acoustic session by Jimbo Mathus (Squirrel Nut Zippers). Singer-guitarist Humphreys, guitarist Mathus and bassist Andy Ware come off much better here; particularly impressive is the trio’s lo-fi take on Sam Cooke’s “That’s Where It’s At”. The Humphreys songs are darn good in this format too, from the sweetly nasty balladeering on “My Heart Is a Radio” (“I tune you in / I tune you out / Don’t even try to understand what I’m about”) to the straight-up (yet slightly atonal) folk of “Walking Down the Aisle”. Alternately folky and soulful, the stripped-down tracks show a core trio with real chops.