James Hunter Six - The Hard Way (2008)

James Hunter Six
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When James Hunter released People Gonna Talk in 2006, few in the US had even heard of Amy Winehouse.  But Hunter was setting the table for her across-the-board success with his authentic, fun 60s rock n' soul sound.  And while his topics were certainly more traditional and his lyrics more subdued than Winehouse, his release was no less fun and maybe a bit more of a guilt-free pleasure. People Gonna Talk was charming front-to-back, effectively recalling both three-chord 60's pub rock and the early pop/soul balladeering of Sam Cooke.

When James Hunter released People Gonna Talk in 2006, few in the US had even heard of Amy Winehouse.  But Hunter was setting the table for her across-the-board success with his authentic, fun 60s rock n' soul sound.  And while his topics were certainly more traditional and his lyrics more subdued than Winehouse, his release was no less fun and maybe a bit more of a guilt-free pleasure. People Gonna Talk was charming front-to-back, effectively recalling both three-chord 60's pub rock and the early pop/soul balladeering of Sam Cooke.

Though not a huge seller, People had good buzz and opened up America to Hunter, who spent much of the next two years touring the US and expanding his fan base. That set up the recording and release of his newest disc, The Hard Way.  That things have changed for Hunter is best evidenced by his move from GO/Rounder Records to coffee giant Starbucks' HearMusic label.  And while that would appear to anticipate an even further immersion into the smooth ballads that were the highlight of People Gonna Talk (Barrista, I'll have a double decaf latte with a soft samba tune), Hunter makes a surprise countermove: He takes The Hard Way into more of a true retro-rock direction, focusing half the album on uptempo numbers that go down a little rougher and that push his vocals into a more uncomfortable upper register. 

That's not to say that the new disc is Black Sabbath revisited. The Hard Way still has a steady diet of silky old school cuts such as "Tell Her" and the disc's best cut, "Hand It Over," as well as fun midtempo numbers like the title track, "Carina" and "Class Act." But Hunter spends more time on rousing rock songs such as "Don't Do Me No Favors," "She's Got A Way" and the wonderfully catty "Jacqueline."  The harder cuts aren't all strong enough songs to shine, but credit Hunter for taking a few chances on the new disc, completely consistent with his stated goal of creating a CD of songs that will work well in concert.  The simpler arrangements and party-ready material should meet that goal, and will likely work even better on stage than they do on CD.

There are probably a limited amount of "out of the box" moves that an artist like James Hunter can make -- especially when he created his container of early 60s-style pop/soul in the first place. But in the end, a good song and a strong performance go a long way.  And while not as compelling as its predecessor album, The Hard Way meets these criteria and remains a solid follow-up for an artist whose main goal is to provide a simple hour of fun for his listeners.  Mission accomplished, again.

By Chris Rizik

 
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