72 Hours: Soulful oddball Van Hunt finds beauty in the discarded
The weekly Pop & Hiss rundown of the weekend's top concerts.
Songs about or set in Los Angeles aren't a rarity. Yet amid the glamour, the noir and the inner-city grit lies plenty of unexplored territory. Van Hunt spends a significant portion of his independent debut "What Were You Hoping For?" traversing it.
Hunt, whose sound has gradually shifted from R&B elegance to some sort of psychedelic-soul rock 'n' roll freak-out, opens the album with the affectionate ode to his community that is "North Hollywood." Granted, Hunt's idea of beauty may be somewhat twisted. His perspective has been informed by artistic roadblocks and career rejection, as the artist was sent packing from the major label world in 2008. With his career in a holding pattern, Hunt spent his days writing short stories, studying classical piano and strolling the streets of North Hollywood.
"My girlfriend bought me a camera and I just walked around," Hunt said. "A lot of the things I found that I was attracted to were discarded things, like couches, furniture and even people."
It's that eye for the misfits, the down-and-out and the broke that colors Hunt's "North Hollywood." Amid an abrasively funky and heavily distorted guitar stomp, Hunt shows nothing but respect for the "crown jewel of saboteurs," spying evicting landlords, conniving starlets and a community in which he can anonymously disappear.
"It’s kind of stepchild, not just to Hollywood but Studio City and Sherman Oaks," Hunt said. "North Hollywood isn’t particularly small, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as the other places around it. I really like North Hollywood and I like how it grinds. It almost has a blue-collar aesthetic to it. I wasn’t thinking about that till I started writing about it. That’s really what started the whole process for the album."
The journey to completing "What Were You Hoping For?" wasn't exactly a quick one. Hunt was to release his third album, "Popular," in early 2008, but saw it shelved by his label at the time, Blue Note. Compared to his self-titled 2004 debut for Capitol, a modern soul effort that focused on Hunt's voice and the groove, "Popular" was downright aggressive, with Hunt flashing his appreciation for punk rock and smoldering blues. "What Were You Hoping For?" continues the stylistic mix, with Hunt fearlessly incorporating elements of seemingly every record he's ever heard.
Hunt said it's the album he's been consistently trying to make.
"To be honest, the demos on the first record sound a lot like ‘Popular,' and even some of this record," he said. "It was kind of raw and, if I may say so, progressive. Once I was done with writing and demoing the album, that’s when all the problems and rejection came. Some of the label executives saw fit to voice their opinions about certain things. With ‘What You Were Hoping For?’ this is what I have recorded."
Hunt's tale isn't entirely cautionary. After all, it was his two albums for Capitol, his 2004 debut and 2006's "On the Jungle Floor," which allowed the artist to build a fan base. He had previously cut his teeth writing songs for R&B artists such as Dionne Farris and Cree Summer, and has worked closely with Randy Jackson, currently of "American Idol" fame, for much of his career. Today, he speaks of the frustration of seeing an album of his locked in major label vaults, at least in terms of an official release, with measured understanding.
"I'm a pretty reasonable guy," he said. "They called me and said they liked what I was doing, but wanted to take a year to properly promote that record. Then I was called two months prior to that year being over and was told it wasn’t going to be put out. I wasn’t anticipating that I’d be dropped. I thought they were actively doing something. But it definitely hurt my career more than my feelings."
Hunt, however, remained hungry. "What Were You Hoping For?" was recorded for his own Godless Hotspot records and released in conjunction with Nashville's Thirty Tigers. It's a topical snapshot of Hunt's diversity. The world is "no place to raise a child," Hunt sings on "It's a Mysterious Hustle," with its foreboding guitars and spaciously spooky piano, and relationships come with "late fees" on the frantic rocker "A Time Machine is My New Girlfriend."
The latter comes equipped with what Hunt describes as a "gnarly" guitar, a sound he had attempted to use earlier -- on 2004's late-night blues of "Seconds of Pleasure," for example -- but one that wasn't always met with open arms by those he was recoding with. "When I say gnarly I only think of two things," he said. "I think of Muddy Water -- his voice, his guitar -- and I think of the Stooges’ ‘Raw Power.’ So when I want something gnarly, I go for that. When I was making ‘Time Machine is My New Girflriend’ I knew I wanted those type of guitar sounds.
"It was just a matter of plugging it in and turning the distortion all the way up," he continued. "That gnarliness? I’ve already been searching for it and it’s been really difficult to dial it in when I’m in the studio. People assume that because I’m singing something soft like ‘Seconds of Pleasure’ that I don’t want something gnarly. It’s just the opposite."
There are quieter moments here as well, and the relationship warfare of "Moving Targets" is outfitted with spacey atmospherics and an echoing rhythm that's buried deep in the mix. Much of the album, however, deals with today's economic difficulties and its effect on self-identity and love. "Listen, baby," I'm your type," Hunt devilishly sings on the title track, wooing a woman who's finally in his league because she can no longer afford to "live around the people" she likes.
"You can't deny what's been going on," Hunt said. "We're finally at the point where we're seeing people say they cannot take this anymore. You see that with the Wall Street protests, which I fully align myself with. My obligation is to give it to you as I see it in my head."
To get inside's Hunt's mind is to embark on a musically strange trip. Melodies come with odd twists and turns, almost as if Hunt is taking massive hooks and tossing them into a room full of carnival mirrors. Yet Hunt finds a way to bring everything back down to Earth. He slices right through the most outlandish of arrangements -- check the vocal stretches and unexpected swirl of R&B, punk and electronic effects that is "Watching You Crazy is Driving Me Insane" -- with a biting line such as "those of us short on loot are short on friends they never see."
"I’m always up to some kind of shenanigans," he said. "I’m looking to disrupt people, not in any negative way but just to shake them out of whatever they’re daydreaming about."
Van Hunt plays Sunday at the Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Tickets are $13 in advance and $15 at the door.
-- Todd Martens
Other notable weekend gigs:
• The Hold Steady @ the Echoplex. Long regarded as the best bar band working in whatever the fragmented genre "indie rock" means these days, the Hold Steady has somehow become easy to take for granted in recent years. Still led by the heartfelt everyman lyrics and vocals of Craig Finn, the band eased into a new era with 2010's assured "Heaven Is Whenever," the band's first since the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. Still capable of breaking your heart as much as making bottled beer go down easier with raucous working-class anthems, the Hold Steady can still make a believer out of the most jaded music fan on any given night. Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., Los Angeles. The show is sold out and tickets are going for about $40 on the secondary market. -- Chris Barton
• Bryan Ferry @ the Greek. There's plenty to explore in the catalog of Ferry, whose career has bounced between the art rock of Roxy Music and the adult pop of his solo work. Yet the latter is still far from conventional, as the English singer's lushly arranged balladry hits on plenty of self-deprecation and melancholy even as it means to seduce. Expect some of the smoothest vocals you've ever heard balanced with an assortment mischievous characters. The Greek Theater, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles. Tickets range from $40 to $85, not including surcharges. -- TM
• Kneebody @ The Blue Whale. A former fixture on the L.A. alt-jazz scene, this eclectic group may have splintered across the country geographically but they still come together for hair-raising sets mixing jazz, funk and indie rock with dizzying skill. Members Shane Endsley and Ben Wendel have gone on to become quality bandleaders in their own right, but the cohesiveness displayed in concert and the group's 2010 album "You Can Have Your Moment" is still tack sharp. The Blue Whale, 123 Astronaut E S Onizuka St., Los Angeles Friday-Sunday. Admission is $10. -- CB
Images of Van Hunt courtesy of Big Hassle Media