Every one of the ten songs on the James Hunter Six’s latest biscuit, Hold On! is brand spankin’ new. Yet each one captures the sound of classic early rock and soul music and sounds familiar in the best sense of the word. Hunter may be over 50 years old, and he would not have been born during this music’s heyday. This is the sound of post-World War II, African American performers from the South and urban north who initially motivated acts like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to become musicians. Hunter is just another Brit who found inspiration in the original music and has created his own in its audio image.
Hunter and company (Jonathan Lee, drums; Lee Badau, baritone saxophone; Damian Hand, tenor saxophone; Andrew Kingslow, keyboards/percussion; Jason Wilson, bass) recorded the album live to 8-track tape in the studio to capture the vitality of their live performances. The band is tight, and Hunter understands when he needs to give all and when he needs to hold back to create dynamic tension. The songs become symphonic with minimal orchestration through careful sonic arrangements. Hunter possesses a vitality and strength, even when he sings about being beaten down.
Consider the case of “Stranded” that allows the drummer to set the rhythm in the foreground while horns punctuate the proceedings. Hunter both sings and yowls to let you know he’s overcome the blow of being dumped even as he still feels the pain. Or the wonderful “This is Where I Came In”, where he uses a movie metaphor to describe an inevitable break-up. Hunter coats his voice with the softness of a hushed theatre while the brass gently pumps out the soundtrack.
Producer Gabriel Roth and Hunter chose to release the album in mono, which creates a sonic fullness that is both deep and broad. The disc sounds lush without being cluttered. This is Hunter’s first album on Daptone, home of such outstanding soul talents as Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley. The James Hunter Six are a perfect fit for the label’s roster.
Like the original soul albums from the past, this one is short. The ten songs combined last about 30 minutes, half of time of most contemporary discs. That’s okay. Hunter and company may leave the listener hungry for more, but one is never bored. Despite their shared sensibility, each tune differs from the others in obvious ways. One track may have a syncopated cha cha beat, the next a faster rock tempo; one cut may have an organ adding harmonies, the next a group of doo wop singers; one song may evoke the passion of Jackie Wilson, the next the sweetness of Arthur Alexander, etc.
It’s a saying these days that there’s nothing new musically. Everybody sounds like somebody else from before. That may be true to a point. Nothing comes from nothing. But the James Hunter Six aren’t copycats any more than the Beatles were clones of Chuck Berry or the Stones imitators of Muddy Waters. This is more than interpretation or retro-perfection. This is the real deal that will kick your butt right out onto the dance floor and free your mind while you still have time.