The music industry screws over musicians!?!?! Gasp! The Horror! The Outrage! Sadly, it’s true.
This episode covers My Man Van, or as most people know him Van Hunt. Never heard of him, you say? Well, that’s a crime, cuz by all rights he’s a dude who should be huge. Instead, he’s currently another casualty of the foolish way the music industry currently conducts it’s business.
Now I won’t waste too much time by going deep into how the state of popular music is pretty sad right now – whether you are a hiphop, country, soul, or rock fan (and most likely you are a fan of more than one genre). Everything is cookie cutter. At least the stuff being pushed by a mainstream music industry that, rather than be run by a buncha crooks who at least love music and the very musicians they would traditionally screw over, is being run by a buncha corporate crooks who, while grabbing every government handout given to them, try to sell music as though it were a vacuum cleaner. ie, if shit don’t sell right away, it must “suck” and therefore, we will push something else.
So take Van Hunt, a man who’s self titled debut album snuck onto the scene in 2004. Heralded as yet another modern RnB record in a glut of terrible mainstream RnB in which the over singing of terrible lyrics and maudlin balladry was accompanied by either the hallmark production of a Timbaland or the hallmark production of the Neptunes, the record didn’t make many waves.
And that’s too bad, because it should have made a ton. While the production smoothed out the sound maybe a bit too much, it was still clearly an anomalie in that it included some sweet soulful guitar playing (“seconds of pleasure”), cool mellotron strings (“Down Here In Hell “), some old school soul balladry (“Who Will Love Me In Winter”), and great upbeat numbers (“Dust”, “Hold My Hand”, “Highlights”). Combine this with Van’s honeyed voice (which, while he stretched and retracted differently in each song, he still didn’t over sing – much – and more importantly sang to the song! gasp!) and, shockingly, intelligent and clever lyrics that did NOT contain any political content, but stuck to the time honored soul themes of love, girls, sex and relationships. Check out this couplet from “Down Here In Hell (With You)”:
What would I do if we were perfect?
Where would I go for disappointment?
Love without pain would leave me wonderin’ why I stay
I think of saving myself, but with nothing to complain about up in heaven what would I do?
I think of saving myself, but I really wanna work it out down here in hell, with you
And really, who among us (‘cept those of you who married your high school sweethearts and are still married… you know you who are. jerks) can’t relate to that? Precisely the sort of lyrically cleverness and sarcasm that is both missing from most modern RnB AND is too subtle for the hipster douchbaggery usually touted over at Dorkfork.
In interviews, Van would, of course, mention his love of Sly Stone and Curtis Mayfield and all that, but he was also rather adamant about pointing out he liked a lot of non-RnB…. David Bowie, Neil Young, The Stooges. And he claimed that Capital Records, as this was his first album, made him tone it down a bit more than he would have liked on this record.
In 2006, his second record, On The Jungle Floor, was released, and it was a little messier and more than hinted at this other tastes the way his debut did. “Ride Ride Ride” sounded like a tune Lenny Kravitz had tried to write, but would never focus on his craft enough to learn how. “At The End Of A Slow Dance” had obvious Bowie-esque allusions. “If I Take You Home…” was the sort of jam we all longed to hear Prince make – you know, one that wasn’t obsessed with all his glossy 80s production. Hell, he even covered The Stooges with “No Sense Of Crime” and turned it into this mutant bass-mellotron new wave thing.
So what did Van get for all his trouble? Not a lot of album sales as, in today’s modern radio market, genre’s and radio demographics are strictly adhered too, and yet Van was all over the place. To make matters worse, Capitol re-organized and then Blue Note records ended up with Van’s contract. Yeah, that Blue Note. I thought, maybe the jazz label would know what to do with Mr. Hunt.
So what did Blue Note do? They dropped him. On the eve of his third record being released, The Popular Machine. From all accounts, it was going to be a difficult but innovative record. From other accounts, they dropped him AND they wouldn’t sell him his record back at a reasonable price (though apparently Van did negotiate his initial release from the label, so it was at least a partially mutual decision).
So the record remains unreleased, beyond a taste he was able to give to folks from an EP release sometime last year. Apparently even having erstwhile ex-journey bassist and current American Idol judge Randy Jackson as his manager hasn’t helped the situation. Of course, given Jackson’s non-Van Hunt responsibilities and the amount of cash that all must rake in for him, one is doubtful that Jackson is doing much for Hunt at all. But this is purely speculation on my part.
Which, 900 words in, leads us to the point of this day’s post. Van Hunt’s new, internet only, release, Use In Case Of Emergency (available here at his website). Subtitled Rare Items From The Vault, the 11 tracks that make up the new record are various old/unreleased tracks along with 3 remakes of songs that appeared on his capital records. One tune, “Anything (To Get Your Attention)”, is included in two versions (both very different from the original). Curiously, the track order has these two pieces appearing back to back. Van’s reinventions of the tune, once as rocker and one as a spare dance jam, are different enough that one could justify the sequencing, yet harken enough back to the tune that, personally I would have placed them at opposite ends of the record.
But they do handily demonstrate not only how sturdy a composition the original is, but Van’s creativity in coming up with other arrangements. As UICOE demonstrates, Van Hunt is a craftsman when it comes to songwriting – something that is unfortunately, in an industry full of “that modern sound”, pro-tools cut and paste predictability and “artists” who are eager to establish their brands early so they can diversify into acting, clothing lines and vitamin waters, fast becoming a lost art.
Elsewhere on the record, “Hidden Charms” is one of those jazzy, string kissed ballads that harkens back to the best 70s Curtis Mayfield ballads that Hunt has become so adept at. “Man Of The Year” is an urgent, tense rocking version of a tune that appeared on On The Jungle Floor as “Hot Stage Lights.” Some nasty distorted guitars and dirty clavinet are accompanied by some 80 keyboard noises that wouldn’t have been out of place on early prince or a cameo record. Precisely the sort of rock/RnB and 70s/80s style mash-ups that the record industry is frightened to death of (“how do we market it???”) and, I think at least, the public would crave.
“0405” is one of those funky instrumentals that, had it a horn section, could easily be mistaken for pre-JT Taylor Kool & the Gang without the 70s production. “Funny” has a bit of Songs In The Key Of Life era Stevie Wonder to it, along with some trippy delayed guitar noodling on the fringes.
At 11 tracks, UICOE never really sounds like anything other than it is – a hodge podge of various tracks from a frustrated artist with a lot of music to get out. Probably not the best introduction to Van Hunt, but after mulling over On The Jungle Floor and finding yourself wanting more, should tide ya over until the next cohesive van hunt release. Which I can only hope is soon soon soon.
In the meantime, let’s hope that Van Hunt, and those craftsman like him – musicians who love music for music
s sake and not just any particular genre – manage to survive the current state of the music industry.
Down Here In Hell (with you)
If I Take You Home… (fan made slide show, but the song is the thing)
Down Here In Hell, live n solo.
The only worthwhile portion of the Sly Stone “tribute” the grammies conducted a year or two ago…. at a whopping 1:37, well I guess ya take what ya can get…