First Impressions: Where The Wild Van Hunt's Are

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Van Hunt---he's pissed. Really pissed. He's also in retaliation mode. He's Dirty Harry and he wants you to make his day, shoot and then ask questions later.

Yet, it's all understandable.

You'd be this way if you had been dropped from your record label and had them put a halt to the release of an album that you poured every ounce of yourself into. You wouldn't be exactly sitting around twiddling your thumbs---you'd get even the best way you knew how. This is Van Hunt's game plan. So strapped with his guitar and his ever-present cynical wit, What Were You Hoping For?, the Dayton, Ohio native's fourth installment, is nothing short of a brazen middle finger towards those who tried to box him into the plush idea of him being like every Maxwell, D'Angelo, and Raphael Saadiq that ever crooned their way through a tune. You can hear it as it crackles and pops, thrusts and pulls, yanks and gnaws, rocks and reels---this is the Van Hunt who will not be tamed and where individualism is on display, so get ready for the 'hot stage lights', they're ablaze.

With previous albums like his 2004 self-titled debut and 2006's exceptional On The Jungle Floor, he charmed the pants off of his listeners, as he expertly melded in Soul, Funk, Rock, and whatever else in-between that could fit into his personalized sound gumbo. Prior to that Hunt had made a name for himself by penning material for the roster of Rahsaan Patterson, Cree Summer, Joi, and Dionne Farris. From that list and knowing of the styles and sound risks these artists took, like them, Van has always been the alt-soul man, exploring soul beyond it's usual boundaries of "neo" and "Motown". Now years after the fact, What Were You Hoping For? has let what has been there all along really come out to play. Hoping For acts like the rowdy, grittier cousin to Jungle Floor. He takes his dabbles into Prog-Rock, Punk, and Folk from that set and expands on them with a final product that is a tad cocky, very so much indulgent, and briskly empirical, but for all the right reasons.

You'll get your nose to the pavement once "North Hollywood" plows in with "Watching You Go Crazy Is Driving Me Insane", hot on it's grungy heels. The official kick-off, "Eyes Like Pearls" radiates as ever along with the punkish snark of, "Cross Dresser". Songs about his refusal to fit into the mainstream (the greasy title track), plastic fabrications of American society and it's economic downturn ("Designer Jeans") are prominent, showing off that disgust in Van's wordsmithing abilities. Van isn't all pessimistic, as he does take the time to pause and reflect on surrealistic pillows like "Moving Targets" as well as admire a woman and her derrière (the Sly meets Prince circa Dirty Mind, "Plum"). Love is nestled in the fold, but in tougher doses.

We come to expect more from our artists nowadays as music has become more accessible and in rapid abundance. Yet, never a day goes by where someone is not calling out a certain sector of artists for lack of expansion of their sound. Though an independent artist who refused to buckle to mainstream expectations, Van Hunt gains just because he has done what seems to be difficult to do now for a majority of artists and that is to sound completely unlike himself, but still not lose that personal touch and talent that snagged listeners in the first place. What Were You Hoping For? in all of it's wildness has the ability to alienate fans who would rather have him play the safe route, yet, somehow he welcomes them into his experimental turn-a-round with each repeated listen. As I still marinate in Hoping For's juices, liking it more and more, Van Hunt successfully continues to dispel the notion that Soul music in general doesn't have a limit, that it doesn't need to follow a standard set of rules.

He's ever so unapologetic about the whole thing, and that is why we should be so glad.

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Release Date: September 27, 2011

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