It was a stroke of luck that led me to Van Hunt’s On the Jungle Floor album back in 2006. Well, maybe not so much luck, but I was unaware that the singer/songwriter had even released a second album when I saw it on the new release rack in my local Circuit City (R.I.P.). I wasn’t the biggest fan of Hunt’s self-titled debut (I actually remember being disappointed that it wasn’t better), but something told me to pick up Jungle Floor. My gut made the right choice.
This may sound sort of weird coming from such an unabashed pop fan, but I love it when musicians think outside the box and combine genres of music-especially artists who successfully combine contemporary elements with a genuine sense of daring and artistry. A general appreciation for lower common denominator ideals has resulted in a music landscape we have now. I thank goodness for artists like who’ve been fairly successful combining a multitude of influences and not conforming (at least not totally) to what a label executive or radio programmer thinks their music should sound like.
The credit for the success of On the Jungle Floor should go to two people. Obviously Van Hunt is one talented musician. The easiest comparison to make would be to D’Angelo, but Hunt’s music is a bit more eclectic and grounded. Vocally, he sounds like he’s channeling the love child of Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. It was also a wise decision to bring producer Bill Bottrell onboard. Bottrell is an industry veteran who’s responsible for producing much of Sheryl Crow’s early work, as well as being behind the boards for records by everyone from Atlantic Starr to Tom Petty to Michael Jackson. To Bottrell’s credit, he helps make an album that could’ve been a trainwreck based on the sheer eclecticism of the record into a cohesive piece of work.
The album’s highlights cover a variety of musical styles. The falsetto peaks of “The Thrill of This Love” will remind many of the best parts of N.E.R.D.’s “In Search Of…”, but the sassy femme background vocals and low-slung guitar strum give it a bit more oomph. “Ride, Ride, Ride” is a rave-up that makes me imagine what Lenny Kravitz would sound like if he got back off autopilot, while “At The End of a Slow Dance” stops just short of being an 80’s new-wave homage, with squealing, high-pitched guitars suggesting A Flock of Seagulls meets “1999”-era Prince. The popping bass and spare sound of “No Sense of Crime” suggests Sly & The Family Stone, which is why it’s surprising that the song is actually a cover of an Iggy Pop song from the ’70s.
The more “traditional” stuff works as well. “Being a Girl” combines a traditional funk/soul melody with a drum machine that could easily service as the backdrop for any hip-hop/R&B song that you would bop to in the club. It retains the danceability of a song like “My Humps” and adds an actual sense of musicianship behind it. Elsewhere, “Mean Sleep” is a tense, strongly sung ballad with then-labelmate Nikka Costa (actually a cover of a song written by Hunt for TV actress Cree Summer’s Nineties album). “Hole in My Heart” is a midtempo, jazzy jaunt that will have you snapping your fingers, while “Daredevil, Baby” is possibly the strongest ballad on the album, with Hunt’s whispery vocal set against mournful piano and rumbling percussion mixed way down low. About halfway through, the drums come on full blast, and the result is a borderline psychedelic, dreamy coda to a great song.
It’s pretty obvious that Van Hunt is influenced by all the right people-he apparently has equal appreciation for the beacons of 70’s soul (Marvin, Stevie) as he does for the genre-bending funk/rock icons like Prince and Sly. If his first album suggested a musician who was capable of one day making a great album, On The Jungle Floor” *is* that great album. Hunt’s sophomore release marked a giant step forward for the artist-unfortunately, no one bought it. Hunt recorded an equally excellent third album, Popular, which was scheduled to be released by EMI’s sister label Blue Note. The album was never released (although songs from it later surfaced digitally, and I was fortunate enough to get a promo copy), but never fear. Hunt is coming back later this year with a new album that promises to funk up your rock and roll just as much as On the Jungle Floor did. I can’t wait to hear it.