Soul men

Hucknall, Hunter, and Burke
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  June 3, 2008

ALL HAIL: It’s the songs — and his singing — on Like a Fire that maintain Burke’s rep as the King of Soul.

Classic soul music’s timelessness has come again. The style’s durable humanity — a sweet blend of gospel-rooted singing and sex-beat grooves tattoo’d to hornball lyrics — is back in vogue thanks to a series of recent albums designed to take this old-school music to a new audience.

The latest entries are ex–Simply Red singer Mick Hucknall’s Tribute to Bobby (Rhino), Solomon Burke’s Like a Fire (Shout! Factory), and James Hunter’s The Hard Way (Hear Music). They’re part of a run that started with Burke’s 2002 Grammy-winning Don’t Give Up on Me, which teamed the legendary vocalist with a bare-bones team of hipster musicians led by producer Joe Henry and has continued with further fresh-slanted discs from Burke, ’60s survivor Bettye LaVette (supported by the Drive-By Truckers on last year’s Scene of the Crime (Anti-)), and others including Amy Winehouse, whose Back to Black (Republic) is this new-take-on-an-old-sound movement’s current high mark.

Of these three new discs, Hucknall’s Tribute to Bobby is the most promising and the most disappointing. It’s an unexpected homage to the 78-year-old chitlin-circuit veteran Bobby “Blue” Bland, original essayist of such soul-blues classics as “I Pity the Fool” and “Two Steps from the Blues.” What’s cool is the way Hucknall plays with Bland’s arrangements. Bland himself is known for using unexpected key shifts and modulations to achieve high drama. Hucknall’s changes include brisker tempos and sampled beats. The drag is that, graceful as Hucknall sounds singing Simply Red’s pop, his androgynous voice is a silly substitute for Bland’s musky baritone, which could turn the phone book into an erotic masterpiece. It’s as wrong as James Brown sung by a castrato.

Hunter refuses to slouch toward the contemporary at all on The Hard Way, but he still sounds fresh thanks to the ska he ingested as a British youth and to the healthy veins of calypso and Latin music that pulse through the grooves of “Carina” and “Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Throughout, he sings like Jackie Wilson recording for Jamaica’s Studio One, and he fortifies his arching vocals with terse guitar licks that echo the great soul factories of Memphis, Muscle Shoals, and New Orleans. The Crescent City gets a little extra representation thanks to piano master Allen Toussaint’s contributions to three songs.

Which brings us to the always estimable Burke, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer whose string of hits in the ’50s and ’60s helped build the Atlantic Records empire. Like a Fire is the least interesting of his recent albums, in part because Steve Jordan’s production is considerably glossier and less imaginative than Burke’s work with Henry and with Buddy Miller on 2006’s Nashville (Anti-). What makes the disc a winner is the strength of the new material. Nine of the 10 songs were written for Burke — by Eric Clapton, Keb’ Mo’, and Ben Harper, among others. And, of course, there’s the gilded voice that lets him inhabit the tunes the way Joan Crawford chewed up scenery, whether transforming the maudlin family yarn “We Don’t Need It” into a soulful tale of love or exploring social politics in “A Minute To Rest and a Second To Pray.”

This is the second time that Burke, who has upcoming shows at Bonnaroo and England’s Glastonbury Festival, has helped his genre find its audience. Perhaps that makes him today’s embodiment of the durability of soul.

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