Ellis Hooks

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Uncomplicated Review

by Thom Jurek

Though Ellis Hooks had developed a global reputation for his Zane Records debut, Undeniable, his Evidence title, Up Your Mind, is what put his name on the lips of most American blues and soul fans and earned him a W.C. Handy nomination. Hooks is a young Alabama-born singer and songwriter who communicates, in a thoroughly modern manner, not only the great passion and mystery of soul and gospel music's related heritage, but the virtuosity of its musicianship as well. There's nothing nostalgic about Hooks' approach; his sound is classic, not retro. With Uncomplicated (titled Hand of God in Europe), his third offering, Hooks goes over the top and offers audiences an R&B record for the ages. Produced by Jon Tiven (Wilson Pickett, Don Covay), who also plays lead guitar, organ, and alto saxophone on the date and co-wrote with Hooks, Uncomplicated also boasts the talent of bassist Sally Tiven (also a co-author) as well as a host of drummers who include Billy Block, Anton Fig, Matt Reale, Omar Hakim, and Todd Snare. Vocalist Essra Mohawk and guitarist Duane Jarvis also lend a hand. The sound put forth by Hooks and Tiven is raw, immediate, and greasy; it's thoroughly organic. Its aesthetic is drenched in Southern funk and grit and gospel fervor; it contains no traces of the slick, sheeny neo-soul tropes that have all but ruined the genre. From the opening moments, the strummed acoustic guitars and languid harmonica that usher in "It's Gonna Take Some Time," Hooks comes out of the box as a pillar of strength: "I don't know what you've been through/And I don't know the pain that hurt you/But I do know that my feelings are sincere and I'll take away your fear/And give you back your heart." It's not a line; it's a promise buoyed by a rock-steady rhythm section and strummed guitars. Hooks is instantly believable because there is no hard sell in the grain of his voice, just the emphatic truth in his conviction as the words come from the fire in his belly. On "40 Days and 40 Nights," the spirits of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding come from the mountains of heaven to lend their spiritual inspiration to Hooks in his tough, straight-up delivery of a man on the ropes from a busted love. Tiven's spare leads filling up the middle that is full of a strutting bassline, popping snares, an organ, and layers of acoustic guitars. Hooks is a man in the desert, and Tiven's licks underscore every line, offering a portrait of the margins of love that ends badly. The rock & roll funkiness at the heart of the title track sounds like Hooks in his dirtiest groove is fronting the Faces or the vintage Rolling Stones. This gives way to the gutbucket funk & roll of "The Hand of God," a steamrolling rocker whose lyric is poignant and a prophecy in the process of being fulfilled. "She Locked the Door" evokes the vulnerability and determination of Don Covay, but the voice is all Hooks. His singing splits open a lyric and wrenches every shred of meaning and emotion from it; his phrasing may come from Memphis, and his honesty may come from the Southern Church, but the truth in his delivery comes from his own heart. Hooks is confident enough in his gifts that he doesn't have to oversing or overemote; it is all natural and free. It comes easily to the listener without detour or distraction because it is delivered by a singer whose voice reveals the hard-won price he has already paid for the experience contained in his words. By the time you reach the later tunes on the album, like the strolling funked-up blues of "It's a Hassle," the shimmying groove in "You Can't Change Me," the sultry blues strut of "Slide the Gun," and strident gospelized soul in "That's Not What I Need," the point is made: Hooks is the new reigning king of R&B. The listener leaves the experience awed, exhausted (not only from its emotional intensity, but from dancing about the living room as well), and convinced that Uncomplicated is simply the best recording from the genre in 20 years; it sets a new watermark for any record that claims "soul music" as its heritage.

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