Ellis Hooks: Uncomplicated
Genre: Rootsy update of ‘60s-styled soul with passionate, convincing vocals
Label: Artemis Records
By Steve Morley
(UMCom) -- When Otis Redding recorded the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards composition “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” he – perhaps unwittingly – validated the Rolling Stones’ emulation of the rhythm and blues style that was epitomized by Redding’s musical forefathers, if not by Redding himself. In the more than three decades since, perhaps no black singer has matched Otis’ compliment as eloquently as Ellis Hooks. Hooks, whose vocal resemblance to the late, great Redding is as authentic and unforced as it is uncanny, has brought ‘50s and ‘60s soul music full circle, encompassing not only influences like Redding, Sam Cooke and Wilson Pickett but also nodding to the many white rockers who have drawn from those classic singers, too. On his latest release, Uncomplicated, the Alabama-born singer is like a lens reflecting the last 30 or 40 years’ worth of rhythm and blues originals and interpreters, all while adding a rootsy wrinkle he calls “Americana soul.”
The Stones’ are hardly the only white group to ever admire the work of black artists (though indeed, it was the Stones and Beatles who largely squelched musical segregation by exporting the American sound back to its native land). Caucasian acts ranging from Rod Stewart and The Faces to The J. Geils Band to The Black Crowes, to name but a few, have paid tribute to black artists and their work. The spirit of these interpreters appears intermittently on Hooks’ CD, accentuated by fat-toned Ronnie Wood-styled guitar and aggressive rock drumming. Even on more subdued material, of which there is plenty, the sound is vibrant and punchy while retaining an organic quality. Producer Jon Tiven has captured the best of vintage soul and presented it as if it had been recorded yesterday. To his credit, Hooks’ hybrid of vintage R&B styles is elastic enough to incorporate loping countrified fare, acoustic mid-tempo numbers and even Caribbean touches in addition to stomping, rocked-up soul.
Most of the songs here carry secular pop messages, but Hooks’ church upbringing comes across on one especially noteworthy track, “The Hand Of God.” The track, an unlikely collision of ecstatic sermonizing and deliriously syncopated rhythm, would likely have caused mass fainting in the Baptist church that booted Hooks from the choir after he professed his love for rock’n’roll. Still, it’d be their loss. Short of full-blown black gospel, you’re not likely to hear a testimony as unrestrained and ferocious as this. As the drummer slams out whipcrack accents, Hooks charismatically sings “there’s a lot of distress tryin’ to walk a straight line/ but I always got some help from a friend of mine/ the hand of God is right on my shoulder/ ask my ma – she said Jesus told her/ when my load get heavy and my road get dark/ I always have him with me right inside my heart.”
Though songs like this make you wish Hooks would do more of the same, it’s enough that he’s rekindled the flame of classic soul music. It’s a treasure all but lost on today’s generation, whose acquaintance with important black innovators might be limited to a three-second James Brown sample on a rap CD. On Uncomplicated, Ellis Hooks brings it all back home. Lovers of the style should, without hesitation, put out the welcome mat.
Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.