James Hunter fell under our noses earlier this year with his impressive old school R&B debut album. But wait! His debut album was in 1996?!? I must get with the program.
Sometimes music critics can be terribly slow on the uptake. Oftentimes we scratch various parts of our anatomy, finger through various music magazines and then discover "the next big thing" -- or "the next IT", if you will. Most of the time these "newcomers" then go on a promotional blitz backed by the money of record labels that have found that special talent. Only after asking a question regarding "overnight success" do you realize said artist or group have been plying their trade for a decade or close to a decade.
James Hunter made inroads in North America this year with People Gonna Talk, a soulful, fun and appealing blend of soul, old-school rock and a pinch of swing. But more than a few people were amazed to find out that he actually released an album in 1996 entitled . . . Believe What I Say, a full 10 years before we, the anatomy scratching music hacks, clued in. But clued in we have become, and this record is easily as solid and precious as the new one he just put out. The album, which features a guest spot by Van Morrison on not one but two tracks, jumps out of the gate with the swaggering and lovely "Two Can Play", which will induce headshakes, finger snaps or both. Think of a cross between Sam Cooke and Bobby Darin and you would get the gist of this bubbly, bouncy and well-crafted horn-tinged nugget. The fact that he does it so gosh-darn easily is even more remarkable, as he tosses in some subtle but effective guitar licks.
From there, Hunter ups the boogie ante with the gorgeous "Way Down Inside", which could have made him a part of some Motown revue. With all of the appropriate shrieks and squeals at all the right times, Hunter could be mistaken as hamming things up, but he never does. The middle portion isn't a guitar driven bridge but a rollicking drum solo by Jonathan Lee. Perhaps the quality of the album originates from the fact that Hunter can slow things down without becoming as schmaltzy as Matt Dusk or some other non-Harry Connick contemporary crooner. This is evident during the stellar, down-beat and jazzy "The Very Thought Of You". Taking things down several notches allows Hunter to deliver the goods from start to finish.
Throughout the album, Hunter rarely falters from this high quality plateau. "It Ain't Funny" has that slight tinge of a Latin feel while Damian Hand and Dave Lagnado accompany him on tenor saxophone and baritone saxophone, respectfully. And this leads into the toe-tapping, old-school and fantastic "Turn On Your Love Light" that is a hip, hep and happening number thanks to Hunter being helped out by Van Morrison. To hear them give-and-take during the song is well-worth repeated replays. It's so strong that it almost makes another keeper like "Let Me Know" fall by the wayside.
Regardless of what Hunter touches, it always seems to turn up smelling like roses, or gold, or something else pleasing. He saves one of his finest performances for the tender, soulful, mid-tempo "I'll Walk Away", which shines in the same vein as Sam Cooke's "Cupid". And it fades in as easily as it fades out, making it another standout here. Unfortunately, when he tries covering "Hallelujah! I Love Her So" later on, it comes off sounding not quite as pleasing as one would hope, but rather as a run-of-the-mill version that goes nowhere in a hurry. The title track is a mild improvement but doesn't quite have the jump of earlier numbers. Fortunately, the horn-laced "Out Of Sight" gets things back on track, and in a hurry. Hunter seems right at home in this number while Hand and Lagnado then give some crisp guitar riffs and licks.
The homestretch proves that James Hunter is from a lost time and era, but he has found his niche with an extremely fine album. Just look at how he nails "Don't Step On It", in a manner that should induce hip-shaking from all ages. Need more proof? Well, Van Morrison and Hunter round things out with "Ain't Nothing You Can Do". And here the duo take a nice, lovable stroll through the track. I wish I heard this album ten years ago, but I'm glad I got it now!