Personnel: James Hunter (vocals, guitar); Damian Hand (tenor saxophone); Lee Badau (baritone saxophone); Andrew Kingslow (piano, organ, percussion); Jonathan Lee (drums).
Liner Note Author: Sam Boncon.
Recording information: Penrose Recorders, Daptone West, Riverside, CA.
Hold On! is the fourth album by the rocking soul man James Hunter and his stalwart sextet. Daptone's Gabriel Roth produced the excellent Minute by Minute in 2013, but this is the band's debut for the label. Hold On! was recorded live in the studio, but Roth and Hunter decided on mono to best capture the immediacy of the performances. The songwriter has recorded only original material since 2006, and these ten tracks are no exception. What separates this date from previous outings -- excellent though they all were -- isn't the mono production, but the diversity in songwriting, rhythmic invention, and arranging. "This Is Where We Came In" may contain a simmering organ, but doo wop-esque backing vocals from Gregory Lee, Alex Desert, and Malik Moore elevate it (and the two other cuts they appear on) beyond the early pop-soul framework that it comes adorned in. So do the cha-cha rhythms, rhumba fills, and comps from Andrew Kingslow's piano. "If That Don't Tell You" finds Hunter in excellent voice, channeling Jackie Wilson and Solomon Burke simultaneously atop horns and in the cut-rhythm section, laying down a fat R&B groove. On first single "Something's Calling," Hunter directly evokes Chuck Jackson's uptown soul with his wrenching, silky, slow-burn vocal. But the track slips its box with organ fills that could have come from a vintage Burt Bacharach recording. The rhythmic attack in "Free Your Mind (While You Still Got Time)" is funky à la James Brown, but it's grafted onto a "Get Ready"-esque Motown bridge. There's also an actual breakdown in the track (a first for a Hunter record). "A Truer Heart" reveals the singer at his most expressive, again underscored by Lee, Desert, and Moore, who push the emotion in his lyric until it breaks free; the rhythm section contrasts with a combination of soul and early ska. "Stranded" is an uptempo, hand-clapping soul tune with punchy horns, and Hunter gets to indulge both his falsetto and scream. The strutting, steamy instrumental "Satchel Foot" offers Latin rhythms, razor-sharp guitars, and horns all vying for domination, but the organ and tenor saxophone solos steal the show. Closer "In the Dark" is a midtempo ballad that touches on Ray Charles' brand of soul-gospel, with lovely chord voicings from Hunter's guitar and a mean walking bassline from Jason Wilson. As on all previous albums, Hunter unapologetically wraps his music in the past; but he's no revivalist. He is an inspired craftsman who finds inspiration and creative meaning in these classic forms. Hold On! provides the best evidence yet that he and his band can find more rhythmic, harmonic, and dynamic paths to explore inside the well of musical history. ~ Thom Jurek