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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 03:17 am

This dog Van Hunt

He’s black and he wears funny hats — what are we supposed to call him?

Van Hunt On the Jungle Floor (Capitol)
Van Hunt is the protégé of American Idol judge Randy Jackson, but try to keep an open mind. (Yeah, I know — it’s hard not to declare a pox on all their houses now that Mandisa is gone, but technically that outrageous miscarriage of justice was the voters’ fault, not the judges’.) On his sophomore outing, On the Jungle Floor, Hunt proves that Jackson is more than the genial human buffer who keeps Simon and Paula from strangling each other, more than the sleepy-eyed, possibly stoned guy who makes cryptic pronouncements about “pitchiness,” who exhorts his “dog pound” to new heights of fist-twirling frat-house idiocy, who calls everyone, regardless of sex, “dude.” Turns out, the dude of dudes has decent taste. Like Nikka Costa, whom Jackson also manages, Hunt has soul, or something very much like it; in any case, he seems to recognize the difference between singing and melismatic showboating, which (thank you, Mariah Carey!) is something few contemporary R&B singers, and virtually no American Idol contestants, seem to grasp. It’s not about how many notes you can wring out of each syllable, how many octaves you can span in the course of a 3-minute single; it’s about the song itself and the emotion behind it. For want of a better classification, people will call this 29-year-old Ohio-reared, Atlanta-based singer/songwriter a “neo-soul” artist, a term as meaningless as it is obnoxious, but hey, he’s black and he wears funny hats — what are we supposed to call him? In all fairness, there is a good deal of soul in his music (think Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield) and a fair amount of neo (if “neo” means ’70s psych-rock and ’80s new wave; if you’re thinking beaucoup bangin’ hip-hop samples, think again). Maybe “neo-soul” is as good a fit as any, although Hunt, who wrote or co-wrote every song on Jungle save one, a Stooges cover (!), is weirder than John Legend, D’Angelo, and Alicia Keys combined. Granted, he’s not as weird as Chocolate Genius (nor as brilliant, alas), but, then again, he actually moves units (as they say in the biz), earns Grammy nominations, and gets played on commercial-radio stations, which requires toeing a line that Chocolate Genius, bless his beautiful pauper’s heart, gleefully stomps all over. Compared with other major-label chart aspirants, Hunt is a real freak, what with his velvet jackets and dirty guitars and kooky vintage synths and stanky bass lines, but that’s not to say he isn’t derivative sometimes. During his finer moments, he channels new-wave funksters such as Prince and Rick James; at his worst (the unspeakably vile “Ride, Ride, Ride”), he could pass for Lenny Kravitz, and if that’s what black rock is supposed to sound like, thanks but no thanks — I’ve got my Love albums to keep me warm. But despite that one abomination, and a vaguely mainstream studio sheen for which we can probably blame producer Bill Bottrell (Michael Jackson, Sheryl Crow), Jungle is a refreshing departure from the usual urban-music offerings. With its slinky strings, rubber-band rhythms, and sexed-up falsetto vocals, lead single “Character” is that rare phenomenon: a bedroom jam that doesn’t make me want to suffocate myself with my pillow. The nicest surprise, though — aside from the Stooges cover, which is indescribably great in both concept and execution — is the closing cut, “The Night Is Young,” a sweetly optimistic pop ballad bolstered by a perfect teensy piano hook and a celestial female chorus. To say that it’s worthy of Burt Bacharach might be stretching it, but it’s not far off the mark, and that’s high praise indeed.


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