It was one of those rare times when the suits at the record company were right. If Van Hunt had his way, the title of his new album would have been Women and Peacocks in Cages.
"I loved the title," Hunt says, laughing. Calling from a friend's car in Los Angeles, the rock-soul singer-songwriter-musician is on his way to a meeting at Capitol Records, his label. "But, you know, the record company - they weren't feeling it. And we came up with something else."
On the Jungle Floor, Hunt's acclaimed sophomore effort that landed in stores last month, sports a much better title. Assured and more adventurous in its musical scope, the album is a funkier follow-up to his solid, easygoing 2004 debut, simply titled Van Hunt. The Dayton, Ohio, native performs tomorrow night at the Recher Theatre in Towson.
About the new CD, Hunt says, "It was a combination of the inspiration from my friends like [soul singer-songwriter and frequent collaborator] Rahsaan Patterson and being on the road constantly. There were moments, though, when I held back, I think. But I'm feeling more comfortable."
That's evident on the first full track that kicks off On the Jungle Floor: "If I Take You Home (Upon ... )," a sexy, lean groove with a creamy bridge that extends Prince circa 1985. As the album plays on, Hunt's influences are obvious. Aside from glints of the Purple One, you hear echoes of Curtis Mayfield, Rick James, Sly Stone, the Smiths, a little Parliament. But instead of just rehashing funk from the '70s and '80s, Hunt churns the influences into something distinctly his own. His musical blend is bold even if his vocals, at times, still feel a bit tentative.
"My boy Rahsaan is always telling me to just let go," Hunt says. "I wasn't as confident the first time in my vocals."
Initially, the Atlanta-based artist didn't want to make his own records. For nearly a decade, he did just fine as a songwriter and session musician. One of his best-known songs, "Hopeless" by Dionne Farris, appeared on 1997's Love Jones soundtrack. And he co-wrote and played on cuts for two of Patterson's brilliant but overlooked albums: 1999's Love in Stereo and last year's After Hours. His friend and manager Randy Jackson (yes, the wishy-washy judge on American Idol) pushed him to do his own thing and helped the self-taught multi-instrumentalist secure a deal with Capitol.
When Hunt's debut appeared in early 2004, it was immediately praised by the press: "The perfect soundtrack for any seduction," said The New York Times Magazine. The incense-and-satin-sheets feel of the record was strongly influenced by the moody love songs of Marvin Gaye. Though one of the most impressive and refreshing soul releases of that year, the CD was under-promoted and barely made the Top 40 on Billboard's R&B; album charts. But despite the disappointing commercial returns, Hunt still managed to snag a Grammy nomination for the single "Dust." And he appeared on the February telecast, performing in a tribute to the enigmatic Sly Stone.
Fortunately, Capitol believed in Hunt enough to greenlight his second album, which radiates an organic, fuller sound: live instrumentation, spiked with economic horns and cushioned with tasteful strings.
"I wanted more uptempo songs this time," Hunt says. "I wanted more of the funk and the blues and rock tones brought in."
The best cuts ripple with those elements. On "Ride, Ride, Ride," Hunt commands you to "get on up dance," and it's hard not to with such a propulsive rock-guitar-accented groove pushing you. "Character" is a thumping, mid-tempo number with Hi-like organ swells and zipping strings. The song also features some of the artist's sharpest, self-probing lyrics: "Who are you/When heavy weather is blowing/Where is your character/The one that keeps you going." Hunt's minimalist funk take on the Stooges' "No Sense of Crime" is a standout, along with the charming swinger "Hole In My Heart" and the bluesy floater "Priest or Police."
"It's really an exciting time to make the kind of music I'm making," Hunt says. "It's an infusion of culture back into music. Not everybody's doing that."
And lovers of soulful sounds appreciate you for it.
Check out Van Hunt at the Recher Theatre, 512 York Road in Towson, at 8 tomorrow night. Tickets are $17 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com. Also see Hunt at Constitution Hall, 18th and D streets, Northwest Washington, with Anthony Hamilton Saturday night at 8. Tickets are $65 and are available through Ticketmaster.