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Music Reviews

On Two New R&B Albums, An Old Soul Sound That Glows

Originally published on Wed May 8, 2013 4:55 pm

It's tempting to describe the voices of Charles Bradley and James Hunter as timeless, but that's not quite right. When we hear the jagged tear in their singing, we know exactly which era they're honoring.

Bradley, who's now in his mid-60s, was signed by Daptone Records partly because of a James Brown act he used to perform. The comparisons are obvious enough, but Bradley has come into his own voice. On Victim of Love, the new follow-up to his 2011 debut, No Time for Dreaming, Bradley emotes with a powerful sense of anguish that at times cuts you to the core.

Meanwhile, London's 50-year-old James Hunter also taps into R&B's legacies — but from an earlier era than the more popular Motown or Memphis songbooks.

The new James Hunter Six album, Minute by Minute, has its own Daptone connection. It was produced by label co-founder Gabriel Roth, who nails the sound of R&B in its formative years when it was part rock 'n' roll, part jump blues, all swing and swagger. It's a marvelous fit with Hunter's own swoons, croons, screams and rips as he and the group time-warp back to the early days of AM rock radio, minus the static.

Hunter and Bradley so effectively recapture R&B's yesteryear that critics sometimes describe their music as being "trapped in amber." But almost all pop music riffs on past styles, whether from last month or last century.

Besides, a musical equivalent to amber doesn't sound so bad. People find value in amber; we value it precisely for its ability to preserve the past, providing a window into histories that may otherwise go lost or forgotten. We value amber, because it glows.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Retrosoul is an umbrella term used to describe R&B music of the present that's made to sound like it comes straight out of the past. It's a style pioneered by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and the late Amy Winehouse. This year, two new albums, by London's The James Hunter Six and New York's Charles Bradley, continue the trend.

Reviewer Oliver Wang looks at how these artists walk a fine line between inspiration and replication.

OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: It's tempting to describe the voices of Charles Bradley and James Hunter as timeless but that's not quite right. When we hear the jagged tear in their singing, we know exactly what era they're honoring.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRICTLY RESERVED FOR YOU")

CHARLES BRADLEY: (Singing) I'm tired of the same lies. I'm tired of the same people trying to get to my business...

WANG: That's Charles Bradley off his latest album, "Victim of Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRICTLY RESERVED FOR YOU")

BRADLEY: (Singing) Victim of love, something is up with you and me...

WANG: Bradley, who is now in his mid 60's, was signed by Daptone Records, partly because of a James Brown act he used to perform. The comparisons are obvious enough but Bradley's come into his own voice through two albums so far, emoting with such a powerful sense of anguish that, at times, it cuts you to the core.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRICTLY RESERVED FOR YOU")

BRADLEY: (Singing) I'm a victim of loving you. I'm a victim of wanting you...

WANG: Meanwhile, London's 50-year-old James Hunter also taps into R&B's legacies but from an earlier era than the more popular Motown or Memphis songbooks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MINUTE BY MINUTE")

JAMES HUNTER: (Singing) Minute by minute, I'm making my way to you. Every minute it's you I'm closer to...

WANG: The new James Hunter Six album, "Minute by Minute," also has a Daptone connection. It was produced by the label's co-founder, Gabriel Roth, and he nails the sound of R&B in its formative years when it was part rock 'n' roll, part jump blues, all swing and swagger. It's a marvelous fit with Hunter's own swoons, croons, screams, and rips, as he and the group time warp back to the early days of AM rock radio, minus the static.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHICKEN SWITCH")

HUNTER: (Singing) You don't have to win every time. You can stay this side of the finish line. Sometimes you know when it's time to let go. When the going gets rough and you've had enough, hit the chicken switch...

WANG: Hunter and Bradley so perfectly recapture R&B's yesteryear that critics sometimes describe their music as being trapped in amber. But almost all pop music riffs on past styles, whether from last month or last century. Besides, a musical equivalent to amber doesn't sound so bad. People find value in amber. We value it precisely for its ability to preserve the past. We value it for providing a window into histories that may otherwise go lost or forgotten. We value Amber because it glows.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE WAY LOVE")

HUNTER: (Singing) I found out for a natural fact what you hand out you don't always get back. Well, now...

CORNISH: Our reviewer Oliver Wang is an associate professor of sociology at Cal State Long Beach and writes the audio blog, Soul Sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE WAY LOVE")

HUNTER: (Singing) One way love, I got gypped for sure but it was fun 'cause one way love is better than none. She fixed the hand while I was playing for real. Oh, I never, never, never, never, never should have let her deal. Oh-oh, I finally turned my back on that single line of track... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.