People Gonna Talk
n the realm of singers from the other side of the Atlantic tackling American soul music, the inevitable gold standard that any comer will be measured against is Van Morrison. So it's no small deal that James Hunter has been dubbed by no less an authority than Van the Man himself "the best voice and best-kept secret in British R&B; and soul." And while Morrison isn't exactly the best point of comparison—he's more of a delicate crooner than a soul shouter—Hunter's first U.S. release, People Gonna Talk, is so classy and well executed that it's fair to say that it deserves the high praise, or at least the embrace he's received from the NPR crowd.
Contrary to popular belief, the problem with trying to recreate the sounds of a bygone era like, say, 60's R&B;, isn't that they don't write 'em like that anymore so much as that they don't produce 'em like that anymore. The recording methods and equipment that birthed the Motown sound are long gone, so retro-minded songwriters have a choice: either make slick, classy digital recordings that sacrifice the atmosphere of analog hiss and grit (see: VH1 darlings from Los Lonely Boys to John Mayer), or track down a like-minded producer in possession of some vintage equipment, like Liam Watson (see: the White Stripes).
Hunter takes the latter route and with Watson at the helm, People Gonna Talk emulates the dry production and rigid instrument separation of a classic soul record. Combined with Hunter's voice, which betrays little of his British accent, the album apes its influences so convincingly that if you caught a song on the radio, you might easily mistake it for some American obscurity circa '63. James Hunter is so good, in fact, at sounding like "the real thing" that the only reservations fans of classic soul will have about People Gonna Talk is that it isn't, strictly speaking, "the real thing." Whether you consider him a talented songwriter who just wasn't made for these times, or merely a gifted mimic, though, you have to respect him on some level.
This isn't to say Hunter isn't without his own limitations. Nearly every song on People Gonna Talk is written from a similar perspective, as Hunter plays the lovelorn troubadour on the verge of a breakup, pleading with his lover to stay or come back, or telling her that it's best that she moves on, or asking what happened. Either Hunter went through some serious romantic upheaval during the making of this album, or he simply doesn't know how to write a song about anything else. Sometimes Hunter's lyrics are straight to the point, and sometimes he employs a clever device—or a cringe-inducing one, like referencing Sly Stone's "There's a Riot Goin' On" for "Riot in My Heart."
People Gonna Talk does get a bit dull during the course of its 14 songs, most of which ride similar mid-tempo, ska-influenced rhythms. Towards the end, though, things pick up, first with the smoldering ballad, "Tell Her for Me," the album's shortest song and Hunter's charming, earnest plea for the moon to pass along a message to his beloved. After that dip in energy, the second to last song, "Talking 'Bout My Love" is a sudden shot of adrenaline, with its swinging rhythm and blaring sax solo. If the rest of People Gonna Talk had been sequenced with such arresting contrasts, it might be an album that demands your attention, and not merely some very respectable background music.
Reviewed by: Al Shipley
Reviewed on: 2006-09-08