Soul from Across Pond

Music: James Hunter, The Hard Way — I grew up on late 1950s and ’60s soul music and it still deeply touches my soul (and feet, butt, heart and mind). There’s a fair amount of artists today doing music that draws from soul, calls itself soul—Amy Winehouse being the most recent best known as well as most notorious example—but little of it really has that true soul that makes soul music soulful. But white English singer, songwriter and guitarist James Hunter has got that and he gets it—the essences of soul music, singing it, and its songs. With a voice that sounds all but channeled from Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson (but also splashed with touches of James Brown and others), Hunter writes songs as fine as anyone within the Motown, Stax or Muscle Shoals musical communities, arranges like the old school masters, and is one damned sharp and smart guitarist steeped in the blues tradition yet with an accent all his own. Yep, The Hard Way, Hunter’s fourth album, plays with all the seductive feel and assertive appeal of a soul classic.

Books: The mysteries of Robert Crais — One thing I love about some of my major literary not-so-guilty pleasures—detective and spy series—is that most every city of size has a used bookstore of some sort where you can likely find one of your faves. Or maybe there’s a friend who has latched onto an author and can get you started with them. That’s how I started reading Crais’ books centered around his Los Angeles-based ex-cop PI Elvis Cole. Yeah, they’re not the truly cracked literature of James Ellroy, as gonzo as Carl Hiaasen’s novels, or as redolent of place as James Lee Burke’s Cajun country tales of Dave Robicheuax, but no matter. Sometimes you just need a good read about a moral actor in an immoral world. And on that count, Crais delivers handily. Next time you see one of his books on a used paperback shelf or maybe a rack in an airport store, if you like detective stories, give them a try like I did.

Music: Emmylou Harris, All I Intended To Be — Harris is the gold if not platinum standard when it comes to country music, consistently bringing a sophistication to the genre that nonetheless honors its common human roots. On her latest, she reunites with her original producer (and ex-husband) Brian Ahern for yet another gem of an album. Best known for what she brings to great songs written by others with her wondrously crystalline voice, Harris actually wrote four of the songs here as well as two more with the brilliant yet sadly not better known Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Kate may today be better known as the mother of young musical genius Rufus Wainwright). And then covers treasures by Patty Griffin, Tracy Chapman, Merle Haggard and Billy Joe Shaver. The result is sweet and nutritious mood music for the soul. If the work of more musical artists were as consistently fine as that of Harris, there would be less need for critics like me. And I’d be fine with that.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2008

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