Hobex doesn't reinvent the wheel, but you can feel the Soul Gods smiling with approval, and faux-soul acts everywhere going red with embarrassment.
It may not seem this way upon first listen, but North Carolina's Hobex is walking a dangerous line with their sixth album, Enlightened Soul. First off, they are a bunch of white guys from the South playing pretty tradition soul music. As if that didn't put them out on enough of a limb, in their efforts they run the risk of getting aligned with acts like Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson -- an association that can really ruin your cred.
What makes this association so easy is that Hobex can flat out play. They are a tight outfit for sure, whether offering up classic soul sounds on the opening track "Free the Music", or channeling '70s country rock on "Behind the Door". And, say what you will about Dave Matthews and his ilk, they are good at what they do. They play smooth, clean music as technically proficient as any other band out there.
Where those bands lose credit is in the sincerity department; their music-by-the-numbers sounds too flat to be felt. Hobex, on the other hand, are completely earnest in their efforts, which goes a long way in pumping life into their new album, Enlightened Soul. "Free the Music" kicks the album off with a command ("Only you set free the music"). Like in great blues songs, the repetition of the line turns poignantly from command to plea, so that by the end you can feel singer/songwriter Greg Humphreys really pining for music we can all feel deep in our bones. Other straight soul tracks, like "You Set Me Free" and "Push It Off That Hill", are equally effective in getting your booty to shake while you feel Humphreys reaching out, connecting with the listener. Unlike Mr. Matthews, Humphreys doesn't fall back on vague, false-sounding songs about "soulful" interludes. There is no sign of a band trying to co-opt a style or the soul tradition -- a tradition taken quite seriously in Hobex's neck of the woods. Instead they pay homage to the genre while still trying to live in it and make it their own.
There are a few curves thrown in to keep the album fresh as you go. The '70s rock of "Behind the Door" sets us up for the title track, an all-out stomp-the-porch country tune. "Hold Tight" offers a crunchy, rolling guitar riff not seem much on the rest of the album. And the closer, "Natural Child", channels the energy of the Allman Brothers, chugging along for eight minutes of southern-tinged rock.
The album does, unfortunately, have its flaws. Where the lyrical repetition on "Free the Music" works, in other places it falls flat. The second track has Humphreys saying "don't waste your time falling in love", which rests a little too vaguely on older, better versions of the cautionary love song to be effective. The lyrics on the whole are simple, and Hobex works best when the words don't draw too much attention to themselves. The bluesy shuffle of "I'm Not Ashamed" is a nice change of pace early on in the record, but the lyrics -- save the oft-sung title -- are so sleepy and drawn out they drag the music down with them. The Allman-style "Natural Child" is a double edged sword since, like the Allmans, the song has some great guitar riffs but goes on for far too long, and an off-kilter guitar solo sounds out of place on such a straight-forward record and puts a wrench in the song.
With Enlightened Soul, Hobex has crafted a solid, fun soul album with sincerity to spare. If there is any justice, these guys will rise up the pecking order and take some of the college-boy-jam-band crowd away from imposters like DMB and Jack Johnson. Lucky for them, I don't think Hobex is too worried about trying to climb that ladder, happy instead to put their effort into music we can actually feel. In that, they have found some success. The lyrics aren't exactly quotable, and it doesn't all work as much as Humphreys and co. would probably like, but you might be dancing too much to notice.