Hunt finds his own way with 'Jungle Floor'

May 12, 2006


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 2000.

However you 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."


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.