Scott Reviews Ernie Halter’s Congress Hotel

ernie-halter.jpgErnie Halter Congress Hotel
Rock Ridge Music

When I stumbled across Ernie Halter’s music while listening to Pandora internet radio in my office one day, I was captivated almost instantly and wondered how his interesting blend of modern pop and soul music had never registered on my radar before. So, I did what I usually do in such cases: exhaustive research. Upon researching Halter, I found I hadn’t heard of him because he is a relatively new artist and this is his first nationally distributed release. Thing is, by the time this review is printed, he may already have released another disc, as I stumbled across this nearly a year after it was released. Still, I have decided to review it because he did not get the proper amount of attention for this release when it first came out and I am so blown away by Halter’s voice I have decided to try to right this wrong starting now.

Halter began in the music business the same way most singer/songwriters do, by playing coffeehouses and open mics. His first full-length album was released in 2005 and was called “Lo-Fidelity”, which was an apt name as the album consisted pretty much of just Halter’s voice back in the mix and his acoustic guitar playing. While pleasant, the album’s sonic drawbacks does not allow for an accurate assessment of Halter’s vocal prowess, though the songs are decent enough.

With this new effort, it is obvious pains were taken to show Halter’s amazing vocal instrument off in the best light possible. And what an amazing instrument it is.

Like other modern neo-soul singers such as John Mayer, Lewis Taylor, and, to a lesser extent, James Hunter, Halter worships at the alter of classic soul singers such as Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder and uses some of those singers’ vocal techniques and phrasing on his album. But Halter is much more than a slavish copier of classic soul sounds and adds an early ’80’s pop-rock influence to his songs, giving them an interesting feel unlike that of most other neo-soul artists’ work. In fact, as often as his phrasing calls to mind that of Wonder, it also reminds one of Elvis Costello, especially circa Costello’s “Get Happy”, which was, not surprisingly, Costello’s most soul-derived album. Maybe it’s not for nothing Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas handles those chores for Halter on this album as well. Another musical touchstone would be Paul McCartney, as Halter’s arrangements sometimes recall those of some of the ex-Beatle’s solo work. The main focus of this album though, and rightfully so, is Halter’s arresting voice. A smooth singer who never yelps or screams, Halter’s voice is deeply soulful and sounds fantastic. Less fantastic are the lyrics, and one wishes he would have decided to save his voice for some better material. That said, the song “Love, Look at Me Now” should have been a huge hit single. Anyone who is a fan of Mayer or Jack Johnson (and there seems to be a lot of them) would love the catchy love song and it is surprising it didn’t hit big or get featured in a big commercial or even get a prominent placement on a television show. While nothing else on the album quite matches that song’s quality, nothing here is bad, just a little lyrically bland considering the distinct sound of Halter’s voice and his musical vision. Hopefully Halter will use his voice to say something a little more substantial on his next album, though as long as his voice is intact, I doubt it will matter much.

Fans of John Mayer and Dave Matthews as well as some of the other artists I’ve mentioned above will like this as will fans of more traditional soul music. Though Halter adds a modern rock spin to things, his voice says soul music and he manages to get as close as a modern artist should to old-style soul. Let’s face it, there’s a bunch of acts who do the retro soul thing and are able to copy the old styles brilliantly. But oftentimes, that’s all it is, just an approximation of what soul used to be with very little originality added or even actual soul itself. Most artists who do the copying thing are just doing it by-the-numbers, no true feeling need apply. Try to sound like Otis Redding and milk it for all it’s worth. Halter’s got more talent than that, and seems to have envisioned a blend of pop and soul which makes his music a little more varied than other artists who attempt what he is trying to do. And, by doing this, he keeps the best of the old and combines it with the current, making him an artist to watch. I am sure his voice will take him to great places, not so much if as when. I am eagerly awaiting his next album and you should check out this one as soon as possible as I am sure you’ll enjoy it just as much as I did.

Scott Homewood