If you think the new James Hunter Six release, Whatever It Takes, resembles classic soul albums from the distant past with their flat dynamics and muffled sounds, then the producers have done their job correctly. The songs were recorded on eight-track audiotape and transferred onto a disc the old-fashioned way to capture that vibe. However, the new James Hunter Six record sounds much more like a previous James Hunter Six disc than the R&B music from the traditions it pays tribute to. That’s a positive because the British band has created an inspired oeuvre where he and his band revive the older traditions and make them new again through their dazzling performances. The new one is just another notch in their belt.
As such, Whatever It Takes will please existing fans more than create fresh adherents. There is nothing new here. Hunter and company dig a deep groove. The heavy musical rhythms both tie Hunter up and set him free. His guitar work goes often goes against the grain of the song to announce its individual voice. On the instrumental, “Blisters”, he fingers notes over a Green Onions style background to display the depths of his emotions.
Hunter can sing with an ache, a honk, a howl, or a growl—and just engage in a melodic conversation before the emotions inside overwhelm him, and he lets loose. His band engages in shapeshifting modes from gentle and delicate to staggeringly powerful. They serve the mood of the individual track — all ten were written by Hunter — like a ball for him to spin, slam, or lob as the situation unfolds. One of the pleasures of listening to the James Hunter Six is that although the group plays genre-style music, one never knows where a particular song will go. Hunter and his band know how to pivot, fade, and feint as well as take a track to its limit.
So, on “Don’t Let Pride Take You For a Ride”, Hunter and the band chill out by repeating the musical lines over and over again like a rubber band twisted on a popsicle stick. Not letting go keeps the tension without ever letting it fly out of control or causing one to lose one’s cool, although the possibility is always there. Hunter’s gospel intonations endow the song with a spiritual presence. Pride, after all, is a sin.
But sinning isn’t always bad. When Hunter sings “I Don’t Wanna Be Without You”, his concerns are sexual as well as emotional. And faith itself can be a good thing, as he croons on the title cut, especially if it is having faith in each other. The tracks on the new record sometimes concern infidelity and the dangers of not speaking up when one should, but the greater theme of the album is that we need to depend on each other to get through life and make it meaningful. Hunter’s not singing the sad blues. He’s offering hope. That means more than just words. Hunter lectures the listener to take action, with a sly but sincere wink. He knows that doing whatever it takes is a physical thing.