There are a lot of things you can say about Ellis Hooks’ new album, Uncomplicated. You can say Hooks shows a love for his forebears in blues, rock, R&B and even country. You can say it has a remarkable groove or that it is one of the best and most honest blues records to be released.
Yet, that does not do justice to this remarkable record.
The album, recorded in Nashville, mixes in equal parts of Van Morrison, Robert Cray, the mid-1960s Memphis sound of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett and a heaping dose of roots rock and even a bit of Traffic, offering a record that somehow both connects with the past while pointing ahead to the future.
Hooks calls his musical style Americana soul, a surprisingly apt label that manages to allude to all the various bits and pieces that comprise his sound without privileging any particular influence. With his luscious baritone and stylish guitar lines, Hooks reminds us with his passion and intensity what blues and folk and rock and country have in common and that they do not have to be trivialized into various sub-genres and packed away for easy reference.
Something in his playing and delivery remind me of Robert Cray. But where Cray can seem a little too perfect, almost too conscious of his role in continuing the urban blues tradition, Hooks connects with that tradition almost organically, without placing it in on a glass shelf. Cray’s is a remarkable guitarist and expressive vocalist and his records are among the best of contemporary blues, but they can sometimes seem sterile, almost deliberate.
Hooks is far from that. The blues, as a musical form, he seems to be saying with each note, is not static, is not something to be admired or studied. It is to be lived and breathed and savored (listen to the guitar solos on the title cut and “Can’t Take This No More” or the slinky vocal on “Slide the Gun”). Uncomplicated is not reverent, does not live in the past, but uses the existing, long-used forms to underscore an emotional connection to the world. These songs are vital and real. They are not curios or musical collectibles. This is the blues as the blues must be played in 2004.
This means bringing bits and pieces of rock, folk, and country into his sound, reversing the standard route of white rockers borrowing from (some would say, appropriating) Muddy Waters, Elmore James, and Howling Wolf.
From song to song, the influences change. The opening cut, “It’s Gonna Take Some Time”, channels Van Morrison with an easy “And It Stoned Me” feel to the vocal, while the single, “40 Days and 40 Nights”, brings together Morrison, Otis Redding, and a bit of the Band.
Little Richard’s ghost haunts “Can’t Take This No More” while the Band casts its shadow over “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and the underlying organ line on “The Idea of You” echoes the best work of Steve Winwood with Traffic.
“Sweet Justina” features a stew of influences, everything from mid-‘60s white soul groups like the Young Rascals to Redding again, with a little Bob Dylan-flavored harmonica tossed in for good measure.
Much of the territory traveled on the disc is familiar terrain: Love and loss, the ups and downs of relationships, etc. While there is no new ground broken, it never sounds clichéd or maudlin. The reason, I think, is that Hooks’s delivery never sounds forced and he is engaged in and committed to each word he sings.
This is most evident on the disc’s best song, “The Hand of God”, a blues rave-up with a gospel lyric, a song that drives home its spiritual devotion with a torrid guitar and syncopated beat. It’s “God meets the devil’s music” with God winning by a knock out. “The hand of God / Is right on my shoulder / I asked my ma / She said Jesus told her”, he sings in the refrain, the wicked edge of his guitar running as counterpoint, pushing the song, impelling it forward, the dark hues of the guitar highlighting the singer’s devotion, emphasizing it, making it that much more real.
This emotional realism is what makes Hooks more than a sum of his influences. And it’s what makes him one of the most exciting new blues voices singing today.