Godson of Soul
(Evidence Music, CD - ECD-26132-2)
Review Date: Nov 2008
by Jim Angehr
Back in 2004, after a few scorching albums on small U.S. and European record labels, singer Ellis Hooks seemed ready to conquer the world with a reinvigorated approach to a musical genre–soul—either long-consigned to oldies radio or electro-smoothed into urban contemporary sludge. He had just signed to an indie-but-prominent company, Artemis Records, his debut for the label, Uncomplicated, was kicking up a small storm of critical raves, and the corresponding tour opened with a string of shows at Philadelphia’s prestigious Tin Angel nightclub.
What happened after that? I’m not quite sure. Hooks’ career didn’t take off, an Artemis follow-up never materialized, he was back with the small Evidence Music the next year for Godson of Soul, and gigs were fewer. Hooks has no website, so there’s no official word, and Artemis has closed shop. On the Evidence homepage, Godson of Soul is minimally listed without any further information about it, but that’s better publicity than what Hooks’ 2007 Evidence outing, Another Saturday Morning, receives. It’s not even listed on its label’s own website. Whether it’s because of Hooks, or Evidence, or Artemis, or something else is anyone’s guess, but from an outsider’s perspective, Ellis Hooks’ life in music has seen better days. And that’s a shame; Ellis Hooks is an incredibly intense, soulful singer that deserves to be heard by a much wider audience.
Godson of Soul was produced, as is usual for Hooks, by Jon Tiven. It may be a fresh set of recordings from Hooks, or, if an indication online is to be trusted, it may be an older batch of songs that stretch as far back as the 1980's. But sketchy history aside, Godson of Soul is another quality release from Hooks that backs up the claim of its title. More than on previous Hooks albums, James Brown-style funk is prominent, and he pulls it off. For “High Roller,” the track begins with a (Horny?) horn blast that settles into a funky groove, behind which a sloppy but tight drum and chinky-chunky guitar fall in. As if we didn’t get the reference, after the first line of the song, Hooks lets out a guttural “heeeeyyyy!” It must have taken some real restraint, or an argument with Tiven, for Hooks not to follow up that shout up, “Huh! Good God! Hah!” “Show Me Your Love” lifts Bootsy Collins’ rubber bassline from the Godfather’s “Super Bad” and convincingly makes a horn chart out of it. Towards the end of the album, “Go For It,” and “Sidetracked,” which stays unrelentingly on the I-chord except for the bridge, make sure that Godson of Soul finishes with an appropriately funky good time.
In addition to the influence of Soul Brother No. 1, Hooks channels Otis Redding and 1960's, Southern soul just as effortlessly. The record’s opener, “Five Times” sounds straight out of the sunny side of Stax. A percolating groove, punctuated by assured, behind-the-beat drumming, clean rhythm guitar work, and a bright chord progression provide the backdrop for Hooks’ growling vocal, which contains just the right amount of “country.” “Five Times” balances perfectly between optimism, exuberance, loneliness, fear, and sexual healing, discovering the same sweet spot that powered countless Stax and Muscle Shoals platters.
So if Hooks can nail both Redding and Brown while making it modern at the same time, is there anything not to like on Godson of Soul? Well, occasionally the album lapses into a generic, contemporary soul-blues sound that finds the least common denominator between the styles, ending up sounding neither very bluesy, soul-y, nor, for that matter, funky. (Interestingly, the worst offender in this regard is “Was It Something I Said,” which features the contributions of original soul giants Steve Cropper and Bobby Womack; guys, this is exactly the type of music that you managed to avoid making years ago!) Happily, though, lapses into genre exercise and cliche are relatively rare on Godson of Soul, leaving most of the album in soul, blues, and funk prime time. If only more people would take notice of what Hooks is doing; hopefully the time will soon be right for a comeback.
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