Great soul music seems to be universal. Not only can it touch the hearts of young and old music fans (when it’s done right) but it can also cross color barriers easier than any other type of music. I mean, who can resist early Motown like The Supremes, Smokey Robinson or even Marvin Gaye? Who does not feel a little more alive when a song by Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin comes on the radio? Then try to sit still when one of the greatest of them all, y’all, James Brown, gets his furious dance beats percolating.
Soul music doesn’t care who or what you are, it just demands you to take notice. It is the same with these two other soul artists, Al Green and James Hunter. One, Green, is a veritable legend of soul, creating hit after hit only to vanish into the world of gospel for many years until his current resurgence. The other slowly building his reputation into one of the most watched artists of the past ten years, with people waiting for a Hunter album to catch the public zeitgeist and take off.
While the blandness of modern radio will doubtless make sure neither of these albums will get much attention, both artists have released the best albums of their oeuvres.
Hunter hails from England where he has forged a career as an old fashioned R&B singer for many years. Beginning his career in the ’80’s under the name Howlin’ Wilf, Hunter has carved out a niche for himself as a purveyor of pure soul whose voice sounds like Sam Cooke and guitar work carries the sting of Albert King. His recording career started out on a high note in 1994 when Hunter released his first album, Believe What I Say, and was able to snare guest star performances by the likes of Doris Troy and Van Morrison, who has championed Hunter many times on stage and in print. Hunter has released several albums since and was nominated for a Grammy for his last album, the excellent 2006 release People Gonna Talk.
Hunter’s new album, for better or worse, continues mostly in the same Sam Cooke-ish ’50’s lite R&B style his other albums have proffered. Not that he isn’t very good at it. If you were not to look at Hunter’s CD and were just listening to it as something played by a friend at a party or something, you would be hard pressed to figure out it was recorded recently. With his voice the usual mix of Sam Cooke with a little added grit and his band members seemingly plucked from the studios of Chess and Hi Records (even though they weren’t) Hunter varies his sound a tinge and gets closer to soul on this album than in the past. Not only is the guitar a little meaner and more incisive, but the horns are sharper as well. His songwriting is unabashedly excellent, recalling the more literate songwriting of the era and having a great sense of detail. Just listening to this glorious throwback of an album brings to mind a simpler time when the radio was always playing something great. People have been saying for years Hunter is an artist to pay attention to and hopefully this is the album that seals it for him. He is just airplay away from stardom, and was working the retro angle before Amy Winehouse could tease her hair. Get this album and show this great artist some love!
And when anybody talks about love, how can the name Al Green not be mentioned?
What can I possibly say about Al Green that hasn’t been said a million times before? Possibly the best pure soul vocalist ever to sing a note and a criminally underrated songwriter. His career began in the mid-60’s with some sides recorded for the Columbia label but did not really get going until he was signed to Hi Records in 1969 and paired with producer Willie Mitchell. With Mitchell, Green began to turn out some of the best soul albums ever created. Just pure classics that spawned many hits. Eventually, however, Green felt the call of the church and decided to leave his secular recording career and record strictly gospel music. This separate career fit Green well as he became a pastor shortly after retiring from the secular music business back in 1977 and his music was always had spiritual overtones. During this time Green still scored the occasional pop hit and re-entered the secular music business in 2003 when he released a comeback album on Blue Note Records that reunited him with his old producer Mitchell. Another album was released that followed the same format in 2005.
Green’s new album is a revelation! Though his past two albums on Blue Note which reunited him with his old producer Mitchell were good, this album could possibly be the best Green has ever released. Produced by Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson from The Roots, this album uses a modern approach to create a classic soul feel. In fact, this is so close to Green’s classic sound one could close their eyes and imaging hearing these songs next in line after Let’s Stay Together on an album side. This is not a genre exercise, however, planned just to mimic Green’s sound and try to recapture past glories. Green’s voice has not lost one whit of it’s slippery, silky power for one, and any production similarities just serve to frame Green’s voice in the best way. In that respect, this album is as much a tribute to Mitchell as it is a continuation of Al Green’s legacy. Mitchell knew the perfect bedding for that beautiful voice and ?uestlove adds to it and updates it a little, but doesn’t really spend too much time worrying about whether Green sounds contemporary or not. He’s smart enough to know Green can sound contemporary on his own if his voice has the best setting and the songs are right. And the songs are first rate, so that’s not a problem, either. People seem to overlook how great a songwriter Green is. Though definitely more of a lyricist than anything else, Green may be one of America’s greatest poets and when Green writes about love and longing, he writes about it in a way that makes Shakespeare and Angelou look like they’re just slamming words together. Green has never been more eloquent than on this disc and listening to it gives me new appreciation for his many gifts as an artist. I wish it was 1974 so this album would get the attention it deserves. Hopefully it will rise above the public radar because if any album deserves to be bought in droves, it is this one.
Soul fans are going to dig both of these CDs, with the more retro folk going for Hunter’s CD and the contemporary fans leaning towards Green’s. Their albums are interesting because Green is the older artist with a more modern sound (that flashes back to his classic work) while Hunter is the younger artist with a more old-fashioned Sam Cooke thing going on. Both albums are among my faves for the year so far and I can see them sticking in my music player long past summer.