The second album by Atlanta
guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Van Hunt has been described as "a better
Prince album than the last Prince album" (which was pretty good), while
other critics cite Lenny Kravitz with more taste and less cheese. To these
ears, it's one of the most inventive R&B albums since D'Angelo's "Voodoo" in
view "On the Jungle Floor," it's an extraordinary effort, and a welcome
surprise after the artist's 2004 debut, which received plenty of attention
at Grammy time, but was oddly marketed like a funky singer-songwriter disc.
"To be honest, I didn't
get the feeling that they were trying to shop me as a singer-songwriter with
the first album -- I actually thought that would have been cool," Hunt says,
chuckling. "I thought they were trying to put me out there as a Marvin
Gaye-guy, and then people would hear the record and say, 'This really isn't
Marvin Gaye, this is more like Prince!' Prince isn't even a
singer-songwriter; he's more of an artist. And I really think my strength is
as a songwriter."
Before his Capitol
Records debut, Hunt was mainly known as a hired tunesmith, with Dionne
Farris' "Hopeless" standing as his best-known credit. "Van Hunt" hinted at
his strengths as a versatile, velvet-voiced crooner, but "On the Jungle
Floor" is a genre-blind tour de force. One moment, he's churning out a
hard-rocking sound that evokes Jimi Hendrix jamming with Sly Stone ("Ride,
Ride, Ride"), the next he's echoing the sexiest falsetto come-ons of Prince
("Hot Stage Lights," "Being A Girl"), approximating Curtis Mayfield dueting
with Janis Joplin ("Mean Sleep," with guest Nikka Costa) or delivering a
slowed-down, electro cover of a Stooges rarity ("No Sense of Crime").
A Stooges cover -- on
an R&B album? Hunt laughs.
"Actually, the last
review I read in Rolling Stone, [the writer] treated it like it was a
gimmick or something. To be honest, I wouldn't listen to anybody that didn't
move me. The thing I like about the Stooges is that the drums sound just
like James Brown -- this dry sound that's just hitting so hard. It's
something that draws me in. When I hear the Who with 'My Generation' or the
Kinks with 'All Day and All of the Night,' it's the same kind of funky
aggression. To me, it's all good, and the similarities are what I like."
Although his debut sold
150,000 copies, Hunt seems unaffected by success. "It's not like I felt,
'Wow, we're on top of the world. The Grammy was wonderful -- it was cool to
be nominated at the same ceremony where they were giving a tribute to Sly
[Stone] -- but it wasn't a thing where it was easy for me to get beside
myself and become arrogant." He maintains that his only goal in crafting the
follow-up was to better realize the sound he hears in his head.
"It's hard, and I don't
feel like I've gotten close enough to the record I have wanted to make just
yet. I'm gaining more courage with each album, but I'm not all the way there
yet. With this album, I just wanted to do it better than the first one!
[Laughs] And to get closer to what I know I can do. You have to be fearless.
I can't limit myself, because I don't hear like that, and I don't act like
that. I follow my instincts.
"It's not really even
about me trying [to be diverse]," Hunt adds. "I don't even realize that
these songs are jumping out differently until I finish them. It starts out
as an idea: I'm usually sitting there at the keyboard or the guitar. If I'm
going for a guitar tone, I'm usually going to go for something that sounds
like the Stooges or Neil Young, because those are the guitar tones that I
like, where with the rhythmic part, I'm always going for James Brown or Fela
Kuti, because I just like that, too."
Hunt claims he still
considers himself primarily as a songwriter -- "The thing I love to do is
write" -- though he and his seven-piece band are playing two shows here
Saturday night in the span of a few hours. But even more than his
wide-ranging influences, his desire to honestly write about the ups, downs
and endless complications of relationships is the biggest factor setting him
apart from many of his R&B peers, who remained obsessed with singing about
their alleged invincibility in the sack.
"There's a lot more to
it than bragging about what a great lover you are," Hunt says. "It can take
20 minutes to have sex, but it takes a lifetime to really get to know
somebody and love them through everything. Everybody has [stuff] that they
go through, and you have to get in there with them and smell it and get into
a relationship that may or may not endure. But that's the only way to find
out, and I really dig that. I like the different faces that relationships
take on, and the progressions. And it's fun for me to sing about real things
-- I really, really like that."
REASONS FOR LIVING
Like the endless
repackagings of their brilliant but oh-so-familiar music, the flood of
Beatles books never stops. A good example of a recent tome to skip:
Magical Mystery Tours: My Life with the Beatles (Thomas Dunne Books,
$15.95) by ghostwriter Rosemary Kingsland and cover name Tony Bramwell, a
fellow whose only accomplishment was being born in the same Liverpool 'hood
as George, Paul and John. But a new memoir by Geoff Emerick (with help from
Howard Massey) is a different story.
Here, There and
Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles (Gotham Books,
$26) ranks second only to Mark Lewisohn's 1990 classic The Beatles
Recording Sessions for pulling back the curtain of mystery, hyperbole
and over-the-top praise heaped upon all things Beatles to reveal how those
masterful records were actually made, capturing the alternately mundane,
frustrating and amusing realities of work at Abbey Road, and illuminating
the painstaking craftsmanship as well as the bursts of inspiration.
Producer George Martin
may get most of the ink, but from "Revolver" on, Emerick was the man
actually working the recorder and placing the microphones. Like nearly every
other Beatles biographer, he's prone to bursts of self-aggrandizement and
lapses of hero-worship, but his engineer's-eye-view prevails, and musicians
will devour anecdotes about Lennon wanting to record the vocals to "Yellow
Submarine" underwater, or McCartney obsessively searching for the "creamy"
bass tone to top all bass tones, and finally prodding Emerick to turn toward
Motown in order to find it.