The Hard Way
John Metzger's #12 album for 2008
First Appeared in The Music Box, January 2009, Volume 16, #1
Written by John Metzger
Fri January 16, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
To listen to any of the albums that James Hunter has made is to tumble through the cracks of time and discover a world that many believed had slipped away long ago. His latest effort The Hard Way is no exception. It would, in fact, be quite forgivable to believe that the outing had been recorded in 1962 instead of 2008. In Hunterís world, Beatle-mania and the psychedelic í60s never happened, and thus, everything that followed from the punk and disco movements of the 1970s to the Brit-pop of the 1990s has been banished from ever having existed.
The biggest issue that typically plagues artists with such a nostalgic outlook is that they remain so tethered to their heroes that they never are able to move past them. Hunter, too, has struggled at times to compete with the legacies of his idols, but on his breakthrough set People Gonna Talk, there were plenty of indications that he was on the verge of finding his own voice. With The Hard Way, his fourth outing in a career that now spans 25 years, he masterfully brings his vision to fruition. By striking the right balance between the past and the present, he found a fresh perspective for delivering his material.
For the record, The Hard Way is not a radical departure from what Hunter has done in the past. In fact, he hasnít really changed his approach much at all; instead, he simply has refined it. There was a time not too long ago when Hunter sounded like he was emulating Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. By spending so much time studying, writing, and performing in their styles, he also came to understand precisely from where their musicís life force sprang. Having assimilated all of it seamlessly into his repertoire, their influence now seeps through his pores whenever he steps to the microphone to sing. Although the spirits of his predecessors ó Charles, Cooke, Nat King Cole, and Chubby Checker, among them ó continue to drift through his work, Hunter truly is his own man.
It helps, of course, that The Hard Way was recorded in real-time with vintage equipment. Every detail of the arrangements ó from the parts played by the strings and the horns to the way in which the rhythm section drives the material ó adheres to a template that today would be considered ancient and archaic. Yet, it also undeniably is classic. Forsaking the technological sterility of todayís digital world, Hunterís approach captures the urgency that erupts when a full band sets up shop in a cramped recording studio in order to lay as many tracks down as quickly and economically as possible. There are no second chances or overdubs or elaborate arrangements, and the no-fuss-no-muss intensity of it all carries through the music, giving it a warm, vibrant edge.
By playing piano on íTil the End, Believe Me Baby, and the title track, the legendary R&B star Allen Toussaint adds his seal of approval, too ó not that Hunter needed it to sound authentic. Thereís no doubt that Hunter is a soul who is stuck in time, but thereís nothing phony about him. He is the real deal, and The Hard Way provides all of the proof that anyone needs to believe it.
Of Further Interest...
The Hard Way is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
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