Though his 1996 debut album, XTC, was roughly contemporaneous to the introductory statements of D'Angelo, Maxwell, and Erykah Badu, Anthony Hamilton barely rose to also-ran status during the initial blossom of neo-soul. Seven years later, Comin' From Where I'm From, despite its fabulously sung swellness, sometimes feels played out even by retrogressive standards, especially on the handful of cuts that cleave too closely to D'Angelo-style tempos (slow, with lots of starts and stops) and harmonies (rich and high). (Hamilton worked as a backup singer on D'Angelo's Voodoo tour.)
Hamilton's inspirations, though, clearly go back to days when soul didn't bear neo or hip-hop appendages. His press material cites the singer's debt to Bill Withers and Bobby Womack, and the former influence is especially pronounced when Hamilton drawls mellow and smoky. I also detect traces of Al Green and Jerry Butler, with Ronald Isley cropping up when Hamilton swoops into his higher register. Though it's not rigidly formalistic, much of Comin' From Where I'm From seems designed to display the depth of the singer's roots, from its artificially yellowed CD jacket to how the opening cut, "Mama Knew Love," doffs its cap to the rich history of mama-worked-hard-and-loved-us R&B songs.
Like his idols, Hamilton can elevate middling material through the strength of his enormous vocal talent. Comin' From Where I'm From, alas, offers Hamilton a fair amount of such opportunities: He can be as run-of-the-mill in his writing as he is ahead-of-the-pack in his singing. The Dave Hollister-like "Cornbread, Fish, & Collard Greens," however, is flawlessly composed, and on lesser material you're reminded of one of the greatest general truths: It's the singer, not the song. And holy cow, can this guy sing! He can sound impassioned even at his most laid-back, and he's effortless when letting loose with churchy paroxysms. I am squinching my eyes in appreciation. I'm sad that I can't sing like this. And yes, Mr. Hamilton, I believe you when you say it was you who "put the juice in Jheri Curl."
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