Soul brothers

James Hunter and Jamie Lidell
By MIKAEL WOOD  |  June 21, 2006


OLD SCHOOL: In Hunter’s view, the more a recording sounds as if it came from the era it emulates, the better.
There’s a good chance James Hunter and Jamie Lidell have never met. Although they’re white English guys working in the music industry, they come from different corners of the biz. Hunter has toured and recorded with Van Morrison and has probably played more no-name UK pubs than anyone he knows; he tracked his current album, People Gonna Talk (Go/Rounder), at London’s Toe Rag Studios, the all-analog establishment where the White Stripes made Elephant. Lidell hails from the Warp Records school of post-techno experimentalists and used to play alongside Cristian Vogel in an electronic duo called Super_Collider; he recorded last year’s Multiply (Warp) on a computer at his home in Berlin. Yet his music and Hunter’s share something deeper than demographics: an abiding interest in the classic Southern R&B of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. Both men prove that blue-eyed soul didn’t die with Hall & Oates.

Hunter is the traditionalist of the pair; in his view, the more a recording sounds as if it came from the era it emulates, the better. That sort of historical devotion is an invitation to dull, yet he’s anything but boring on People Gonna Talk. Restraint is the key: he doesn’t oversing his durable melodies, steering clear of the sloppy melisma that infects so much current R&B. And there’s a close-trimmed economy to his and producer Liam Watson’s arrangements that keeps the music moving, even in a ballad like the opening title track, which he slows to a sweet rocksteady throb. If the masterminds behind American Idol knew what to do with this season’s gray-haired winner, Taylor Hicks, they’d have him make a record like this.

Since People Gonna Talk was recorded live, it should come as no surprise that Hunter can reproduce the disc’s warm vintage sound on stage. Nonetheless, it was quite a sight to see how capably he delivered his stuff last week at New York’s Makor; even his cover of “The Way You Look Tonight” (nothing if not a concession to the Idol watchers in the room) sounded fresh and inspired. A tiny, low-ceilinged spot, Makor is probably the kind of space Hunter’s used to playing, but expect him to fill the airier expanses of Bank of America Pavilion (where he’ll open for Etta James Saturday night) just fine.

You won’t likely find Lidell opening for an R&B legend like James any time soon, unless you count Beck, with whom he’s touring. That’s not because he’d seem out of place — Multiply has shocked followers of his earlier, more cacophonous work with its smooth accessibility — but because the committed dabbler is more interested in spending his time pursuing projects like Multiply Additions (Warp), a new mini-album of remixes and live tracks. Lidell’s not as solid a performer as Hunter — for one thing, he’s a fan of sloppy melisma — so the live cuts are of limited interest; if anything, they seem designed to convince doubters that he isn’t a studio creation. Which is more rewarding for him than it is for us.

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