R&B, Blues, Soul & Stax

In The Key Of R&B

25 JAN 11 DAVID SHANNON

By now U.K.-born-and-bred James Hunter is on his way to becoming a household name in the U.S., after two Billboard blues chart-topping releases -- 2008's The Hard Way on Hear Music and the 2006 Rounder release People Gonna Talk, the latter of which was nominated for Best Traditional Blues Album at the 49th Grammy Awards. But, it wasn't until People Gonna Talk that Hunter sprang up on the radar of American listeners and proved he can deliver a fresh and surprising take on R&B while still hewing to tradition.

The album delivers a set of tightly constructed and hooky numbers that feature Hunter's soulful vocal grit, combined with his tasteful guitar approach and a talented band that could easily have backed Otis Redding or a number of other R&B greats.

Wasting no time, the opening and title track slips into the deep end of the R&B pool, kept afloat by a ska-tinted bounce and Hunter's smoky vocal. The effect is continued on "Riot In My Heart," an upbeat vamp aided by Kyle Koehler's constant keyboard comping and a frenzied sax solo from Damian Hand. The slow-cooked "I'll Walk Away" shuffles along under Hunter's warm guitar, and "Talking "Bout My Love" is hopped-up rhythm 'n' blues at its best.

Many of the tunes are under the three-minute mark, like handfuls of bright nuggets mined from deep veins of R&B history, and striated with iridescent horns and glowing guitar tone. It's no surprise that Hunter cites Sam Cooke as a primary influence -- the vocal timbre is eerily reminiscent of Cooke and takes the listener back to an earlier era, when bobby-socked teenagers collected 45 singles and hung out at the drive-in. That the album's distinctly American sounds come from a British performer makes Hunter's tunes all the more impressive.