Although his commercial fortunes had not yet matched theirs by the time this album was released, James Hunter had been promoting the revival of classic-era soul for a couple decades before fellow Brits Amy Winehouse, Corinne Bailey Rae, and Joss Stone came along. His command of the idiom has never been less than thorough and convincing -- without knowing that the songs on The Hard Way were newly recorded, anyone might guess that this retro feast was a long-lost gem from 1966. Hunter's voice is equal parts grits and silk, somewhere between Sam Cooke smooth and Bobby "Blue" Bland scorched, and his small combo of sympathetic players could easily have found work in the studios of Hi, Stax, or Chess back when this style reigned. Compared to Hunter's last, 2006's Grammy-nominated People Gonna Talk, The Hard Way, his debut for Hear Music, is a tad tougher -- the horns are more prominent and sharper, Hunter's guitar has more bite to it, and the rhythms cut deeper -- and quicker; at times Hunter veers closer to soul-rock than he has in the past, but he's still working well within his favorite genre. Hunter, as always, is a riveting vocalist -- his singing grabs and never lets go. He handles both the lazy, bluesy tunes and the sweatier uptempo R&B with equal commitment and style, sounding as natural as can be as he tells his tales of love and the lack of it. On the slinky blues ballad "'Til the End," one of a few tunes on which he is joined by New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, Hunter takes his time spilling out his doomsday scenario of a relationship gone down while the drums, bass, and horns lope along minimally. When he unfurls his brief guitar solo midway, it's economical but searing. On the rocking "Jacqueline" a doo-woppy chorus and squalling sax fill in the holes, and for the title track, a Cooke ringer, the Echo Strings add muscle and sass to the arrangement. Dancefloor denizens once ached for tunes this beat-crazy and would do well to reacquaint themselves with the real deal via James Hunter.
AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin