Yet another stellar example of how to make a retro soul record without sounding like you’re trying to make a retro soul record.
With the roster of soul legends on the Daptone label having sadly dwindled in the last few years, James Hunter has admirably stepped up to fill the admittedly large shoes of the late Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones. His brand of soul and R&B adheres to the Daptone sound—warm and vintage-y with only the faintest hints of modernity—and could easily pass for some great lost soul sides from the late-‘60s. No faint praise for someone who has, for the last few years at least, shared a label with some of the biggest and best names in the modern retro soul game.
Sticking with a release schedule that has seen a new album every two years since his Daptone debut, 2016’s Hold On!, Nick of Time arrives, well, just in time given that Whatever It Takes was released in 2018. The latter was Hunter’s crowning achievement to date, no mean feat given the consistent level of quality in his recorded output. Whatever It Takes mixed soul and R&B with just a touch of early rock ‘n’ roll (what’s the difference, really?) for a captivating set of originals that could’ve easily passed for records half a century older. Nick of Time largely follows this track, something Hunter has been doing for a quarter of a century or so at this point, with equally impressive results.
With a new crew of musicians making up the sextet in the James Hunter Six, Nick of Time immediately presents itself as a continuation of Whatever It Takes, albeit with a handful of notable exceptions. “I Can Change Your Mind” rides a Latin groove wrapped in the warm analog sound of vintage soul music, Hunter’s soulful delivery perfectly capturing the aesthetic of a bygone era without the slightest hint of artifice. “Who’s Foolin’ Who” relies on a Drifters/Sam Cooke-esque rhythmic underpinning, complete with timpani and subdued horn lines, and it offers a gorgeous melody and vocal take that serves as a masterclass in approximating Cooke’s inimitably effortless delivery (check the title track for further proof of his Cooke-aping abilities).
Elsewhere, Hunter employs a more than passable Ray Charles for tunes like the rollicking 6/8 “Till I Hear It from You,” his vocals and phrasing sounding eerily like the late master of soul. “Ain’t Going Up in One of Those” could almost pass for a lost Charles track, Hunter’s voice going from soulful to shout/screams with a masterful ease. To be sure, Hunter possesses a vocal timbre all his own—you know you’re listening to a Hunter record when it comes on—but he consistently emulates the greats in a manner at once on the same level and coming off as a loving homage to the music and its practitioners.
“Never” is textbook blue-eyed soul, all doo-wop harmonies, contrasting organ and piano lines, all cut through with snaky guitar lines drenched in reverb. Meanwhile, “Missing in Action” builds upon a sparse Latin groove and descending organ hook, Hunter’s vocals swooping and soaring through the skeletal arrangement with ease. As with his previous outings, everything on Nick of Time sounds like it could’ve come from any number of mid-‘60s soul sides, all sounding vaguely familiar from an aesthetic standpoint, their simple melodies effortless earworms. Nick of Time is yet another stellar example of how to make a retro soul record without sounding like you’re trying to make a retro soul record.