The cover of Van Hunt's self-titled debut has a picture of our man's face framed by psychedelic squiggles and a comic-book speech balloon announcing his name. Kinda funny when you think about, seeing as how the hyped neo-soul movement of the past few years has graced us with a lot of acts that are cartoon carbons of the real deal. Musiq as Stevie Wonder? More like Rudy from Fat Albert. Granted, the wedding of 21st-century studio glaze to '70s songwriting sophistication has birthed some amazing albums by D'Angelo, Raphael Saadiq and Anthony Hamilton -- though ironically, neo-soul's only true magnum opus so far has been Cody Chestnutt's scuffed-up, stripped-down The Headphone Masterpiece.
Scratch that. Make that two magnum opuses.
According to Van Hunt (who will play a free show at Boulder's Fox Theatre on Tuesday, March 30), he was raised by a dad who painted, pimped and faked being crazy just to get committed to an asylum and thus get out of working in a factory. True or not, Hunt knows the power of good mythmaking; hardship and weirdness wriggle out of the songs on his first disc like dark dreams out of a fevered brain. Even the sunny softness of the ballads "What Can I Say" and "Precious" serve to bring out the quirky funk in tracks such as "Down Here in Hell (With You)," in which Hunt sweetly exhales, "I really love it when we make mistakes/Because once again it gives me a reason to complain/ Love without pain/Would leave me wondering why I stay." Like Curtis Mayfield, his most syrupy love songs are Trojan horses hiding whole arsenals of spite, regret and depression. Besides such sweeping emotional panoramas, Hunt's musical vision casts a wide-angle lens on the bloodline of soul music, zooming in occasionally on Marvin Gaye or Prince without becoming fixed on either.
By contrast, the eponymous debut of the Soul of John Black (due at the Gothic Theatre on Thursday, April 1) might as well be a heat-seeking missile locked onto the grainy, luscious grooves of Deep South, Nixon-era soul. True, there's a bit of digital click-and-paste to the production, but the record's gouging bass and bluesy grit summon the earthy twang of Syl Johnson, Luther Ingram and the master, Al Green. Essentially a duo comprising singer/guitarist John Bigham and bassist/programmer Christopher Thomas, the group's collective credentials are almost obnoxiously impressive, including stints with Fishbone, Macy Gray, Joi, Eminem, Brian Blade and Miles Davis. And as funky and belly-warming as it is, this album has got "session-musician project" stamped all over it. It's almost too sanitary -- a mangled chord or sideswiped high hat here and there would have let a little air out of its overinflated perfectionism. And that's exactly why Van Hunt is a shoo-in to enter the still small pantheon of commercially recognized neo-soul artists, while Bigham and Thomas are likely to be thought of fondly as competent draftsmen and not much else. Sure, Van Hunt may be cartoony, but at least he's an idiosyncratic, Technicolor caricature of no one but himself.