Unlike blues, Southern soul isn't exactly a frequently heard influence within American indie rock, and its few practitioners tend to be transplants from the territories who find a niche in hipster enclaves. The last artist to pursue the style with much success was Chris Lee, a North Carolinan improviser who rediscovered his inner Dan Penn after a move to Brooklyn. But Lee hasn't released a record since 2003's Cool Love, and George Hunter, singer/guitarist/songwriter of the Chicago-based Catfish Haven, seems eager to take up his mantle. Coming on the heels of a well-received EP (Tell All Your Friends), the trio's debut full-length spikes stylistic moves invented at Stax and Muscle Shoals with garage-band drive.
There's not an arty or pretentious bone in Catfish Haven's collective body, which is refreshing given their home base, and they're spot-on in understanding soul as small-group music. But there's a fine line between stripped-down and threadbare: Hunter's amplified-acoustic rhythm guitar (a curious choice for the genre) can sound thin, and the few tracks goosed by simply arranged horns or wordless backing vocals (or both, on "Down By Your Fire") just whet the appetite for more varied textures. Up front, Hunter wails and testifies in the sort of weathered voice often described as "honey-and-gravel," though, to be honest, there's little honey to it.
On Tell Me, Hunter's full-bore attack often evokes the out-like-a-shot impatience of early Graham Parker, especially on rave-ups "I Don't Worry" and "Another Late Night," and the funked-up plea "Crazy for Leaving." His stabs at subtler material are less consistent. "If I Was Right" is a post-breakup jangler ("Why can't I sleep at night/After leaving you") that finds Hunter effectively trading his usual abandon for stretched-out, behind-the-beat phrasing. But on the lengthy "Let It Go (Got To Grow)," a simmering, Curtis Mayfield-style groover that succeeds mostly as a workout for bassist Miguel Castillo and drummer Ryan Farnham, the singer has little to offer beyond repeated exhortations to, well, let it go. It's a sign of how far Hunter still has to come: When Curtis (or Otis or Rufus or Isaac) sang less-than-trenchant lyrics, who noticed?
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment