The nomenclature of pop music has never been an exact science, but neo-soul has to be one of the most useless terms ever coined. Any genre that can accommodate Stevie Wonder pretenders, Afrocentric fusion, European quasi-jazz grooves, and hippies isn't really a genre, especially when much of what falls under this torn umbrella of a term also reflects the pervasive influence of hip-hop. Soul, like all vital music, is constantly evolving.
The January 2000 release of the second D'Angelo album, Voodoo (Virgin), unofficially kicked off a movement that had been percolating for a number of years--and that's if you ignore Prince and forgotten voices like Terence Trent D'Arby, who presaged many of its musical concerns by a decade or two. While Voodoo wasn't the first soul album to acknowledge the ubiquity of hip-hop, it was arguably the first to make sense of it without being shackled by its instrumental limitations. Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson kept time on that record, giving the music a metronomic heartbeat and holding together the impressively loose and notably live-sounding performances by bassist Raphael Saadiq, guitarist Charlie Hunter, and trumpeter Roy Hargrove. The multitracked layers of restrained vocals were a stark contrast to the forgettable ballads that then dominated the charts. The album was too personal a statement by its smoldering singer to truly function as a blueprint for a new movement, but it opened the door for artists who felt "soul" music should retain some connection with its history.
Significant artists who arrived both before Voodoo (Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Macy Gray, Angie Stone) and after it (Alicia Keys, Anthony Hamilton, Donnie, Jill Scott) have made strong music, but none have ever eclipsed D'Angelo's accomplishment. Instead, a subsequent lamentable crop of mediocre singers has chased some similar muse, hoping to wring from it the latest formula for success. As alt-rock became the new hair metal, neo-soul has become the new slow jam.
But this year a couple of singers broke rank to reconnect wholeheartedly with the classic soul of the 60s and 70s. Ricky Fante, a Baltimore-bred singer now living in LA, might be the first artist in years to truly deserve the neo-soul tag. His recent debut album, Rewind, makes no bones about cribbing from the hard soul of the Stax Records era, and while the eponymous debut of Van Hunt--raised in Dayton, Ohio, and now based in Atlanta--lacks such a narrowly defined model, he pays more than lip service to past greats like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Sly Stone.
Fante was discovered in LA about four years ago, playing in a duo called the Soul Surfers, who, as the name implies, mixed surf guitar with soul. Apparently Fante's singing transcended this novel sound enough to attract the attention of the Virgin A and R man who signed the singer to a development deal in 2001. His gritty, raspy voice is reminiscent of gospel-inspired artists like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, and James Carr, but the album's songs, cowritten with Jesse Harris (whose contributions to Norah Jones's breakthrough debut included the smash "Don't Know Why") are calculatedly nostalgic, clearly seeking to evoke the late-60s heyday of Memphis soul.
Some of Rewind's themes are ridiculously quaint. When Fante sings "Turn on the radio / Let's get in the car and drive," on "Drive," he seems like he's aiming straight at boomer nostalgia. It's a fine song, but while it's entirely plausible that a 25-year-old like Fante isn't a hip-hop fan, the sentiment seems a bit plastic--not surprising coming from a guy who glibly claimed in Vibe, "I know I'm a soul singer, 'cause when I sing, I feel."
Although Fante knows the phrases and the moves of the classics, he often seems a mimic rather than a natural, and when I saw him early this spring, opening for Al Green, he spent far more time rolling around on the stage and shouting come-ons to the audience than actually singing. Rewind still manages to sound terrific: Fante's remarkable voice--which can approach the creamy weightlessness of Green's in one phrase and the testifying power of Pickett's in the next--cuts through the glossy, antiseptic production. I'm just not sure he can produce anything significant without a lot more coaching.
Van Hunt, on the other hand, knows exactly what he's doing. He's been operating on the fringes of contemporary soul since the late 90s. His songs have been recorded by singers in the neo-soul orbit like Dionne Farris, Rahsaan Patterson, and Joi, but his remarkably assured eponymous debut, released in February, makes it clear that he's not chasing any particular demographic. For one, Hunt has no interest in finding new ways to merge hip-hop and soul. "I'm not really a hip-hop dude," he told Los Angeles City Beat in January, "and I don't want no rhyming on my album." But he isn't afraid to bring bits of rock and orchestral pop into the equation, evoking the rainbow swirl of his hero Prince. In fact, the album's scope might be its most winning attribute.
Hard-rock riffs pulse through the album's hooky opener, "Dust," which if not for Hunt's liquid expressiveness and slinky groove, wouldn't sound out of place on a Living Colour tune. He breezes through "Seconds of Pleasure," a slow-burn ballad stoked by fiery guitar licks, muted horn charts, and sparse strings, with an easy, Mayfield-esque falsetto. He channels George Clinton on "Hello, Goodbye," while "Anything (To Get Your Attention)" sounds like a lost hit by Me'Shell Ndegeocello, and "Her December" bounces along with subtle Latin accents, evoking the early 70s best of Stevie Wonder.
Such well-executed moves are familiar ones, but on other songs Hunt defies expectations. "What Can I Say" is a pretty ballad set to gentle piano and pizzicato-spiked strings in which Hunt masterfully harmonizes with himself in voices both dusty and plush, suggesting the Beach Boys taking a stab at a Paul McCartney song. In another ballad, "Precious," Hunt's songwriting ventures outside of soul into pop and rock even as his vocal delivery bridges street and altar.
The album features a raft of recognizable LA studio musicians, and Hunt himself multitracked many of the parts--he plays guitar, keyboards, saxophone, and drums. But live he travels with a tight, steady band of his own. Playing at Double Door in early April the band brought more bottom to his songs and lead guitarist George Gordon sprinkled his solos with the acid sting of Hendrix and Ernie Isley. Hunt himself sounded terrific, opening the show with Sam Cooke's "That's Where It's At" and nailing it with authority and grace.
There are plenty of terrific singers out there, but like Curtis Mayfield, Prince, and D'Angelo, Van Hunt is one of the few who sees the whole picture.
Van Hunt performs at 9 PM on Friday, August 13, at the Harold Washington Cultural Center. Tickets are $30. See the music listings for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Suzy Poling.