"I'll Walk Away" / James Hunter
I just learned that the term "rhythm and blues" was invented as a music-chart category to replace "race music"; it was understood that R&B singers were black, but on the eve of the civil rights era it seemed better to speak in code. Occasionally you'd get a white singer who'd break the mold -- Alex Chilton, Dusty Springfield, Van Morrison -- but on the whole R&B has survived as a black genre. So when I first heard James Hunter's smooth, velvet-edged voice, why would I imagine he was white? Not only white, but English? No, that voice pouring like honey out of my speakers was kin to Sam Cooke, or James Carr, or Arthur Alexander, Joe Tex, Percy Sledge, or Lionel Richie.
Not only that, his songs are such pitch-perfect recreations of the classic R&B groove that you'd swear they were all covers, though most of them -- in fact everything on his stellar 2006 album, People Gonna Talk -- he wrote himself: finger-snapping charmers with winsome melodies and laid-back lyrics. In a world where R&B is represented by overheated shtreet characters like R. Kelly and Usher, these songs are a breath of fresh air.
"I'll Walk Away" begins at a leisurely stroll, with light whisking drums and a cool bleat of horns on the offbeat; the singer addresses his woman with an ironic shrug, wryly predicting the end of their affair before it's even begun -- "Darling, if ever you refuse me / Like I know you will one day." But in the next verse, he clarifies the situation: "When I feel my chances growing slimmer / And there's every chance they may / When the love light in your eyes goes dimmer / I'll know that's my cue to walk away." That vulnerable blurt on "every chance they may," a telltale tremble on "the love light," gives him away -- yeah, he may have his eyes wide open, but he's a helpless sucker for her all the same, isn't he? It's very endearing, cynical and eager at the same time, and I love how his voice curls around and caresses every line.
Over a jazzy piano in the bridge, Hunter's voice pulls off a shivering sax-like lick on the line "I won't hang around where I'm not wanted" (shades of Van Morrison, one of Hunter's mentors, who joined him for two duets on Hunter's earlier album Believe What I Say). That "I won't hang around where I'm not wanted" is to me the core of this song: Some singers would make it a menacing snarl, but with him it's upbeat and relaxed, a guy who's navigated enough love affairs to read all the signs.
I'm under the spell by now, and by the time Hunter throws in a nimble guitar solo before the second bridge, suddenly I'm wondering -- just hypothetically -- what that guitarist's fingers would feel like on my earlobe, or my throat, or... you know, he could be wrong about this affair; she could be a keeper after all. And if she isn't -- well, he won't have to look too far for someone who is.