Yes, the production is grand, the band tight, and the songs are clever; but Hunter’s voice is the main attraction here.
Philip Roth used to joke that the talent of a rabbi could be found in his or her ability to stretch the Hebrew word for Israel into a lengthy multisyllabic phrase. The character Clay Davis from television’s The Wire gained a strong following among fans for his ability to stretch a crasser synonym for manure into a long expressive “Sheeeeiiiittt”. For the British vocalist James Hunter, it’s his gift for turning the word “Heartbreak” into an extended soliloquy. He turns the simple expression of pain into an extended gut wrenching plea for mercy. It’s soul singing at its finest--if one believes that the pinnacle of soul singing of the late '60's (re: Otis Redding, James Brown, Aretha Franklin) is the gold standard by which all soul singing is measured.
The James Hunter Six’s music purposely resembles soul music from the '60's than anything from the last 40 years. Daptone producer Gabriel Roth (Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones) specializes in recreating the classic sound of the past. But Minute By Minute is no dusty museum piece. It cooks. Roth keeps the arrangements sparse so that each member of the band (Damian Hand on tenor sax; Lee Baritone on baritone sax; Jonathan Lee, Jason Wilson, and Kyle Koehler on drums) can strut their stuff. The instruments rarely blend together but disclose their separate voices in turn, building a musical conversation in which the elements separately contribute. Each member of the combo gets up to play their riff and then backs off, so the next person can do one’s thing. The music pulses and throbs, especially when one of the saxes lets loose.
The song lyrics themselves often betray a subversive sense of humor and delight in confusing the listener’s expectations. This undercuts the seriousness of the re-creation of the hallowed past and makes it oh so post-modern in the best sense of the word. When Hunter starts singing about the “Chicken Switch” in a style that would make Lee Dorsey proud, it takes a while to sink in that Hunter’s crooning about “taking the coward’s way out” of any precarious situation one may find themselves in. Usually, a lead singer swaggers with toughness; Hunter clucks.
But he also can take on the other persona. On “The Gypsy” he rewards a fortune teller who tells him that bad news awaits (“Next time you’re at a funeral don’t bother goin’ home”) with a lead pipe to the head (“I told that wise old gypsy I’m sorry I got rough / but you would have seen it comin’ if you really knew your stuff”). Having the gullible victim of a fraud turn the tables through brute strength is a delicious O’Henry-like surprise, although I don’t mean to advocate head bashing.
Yes, the production is grand, the band tight, and the songs are clever, but Hunter’s voice is the main attraction here. He sings with an ache that never breaks, even though he always seems to be reaching for a note just out of range. He teases the listener into thinking that he’s so overcome with emotion that he can barely go on--but he always goes on and takes one higher (or lower). Hunter doesn’t want to make you laugh or cry as much as he just wants to make you feel every minute. He does that superbly, minute by minute.