Friday, April 22, 2016

Time's Marrow: Anthony Hamilton's What I'm Feelin'

Anthony Hamilton newest album is What I'm Feelin'. (Photo: LaVan Anderson)

We are pleased to welcome Dylan Hicks as a guest contributor to Critics at Large.

Late last year, R&B singer Anthony Hamilton enjoyed some internet attention for gospel, doo wop, and other old-school rejiggerings of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” Silentó’s “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae),” and 2 Chainz’s “Watch Out.” The videos, showing Hamilton performing either with his road band or a cappella with his background singers, the HamilTones, were as much settings as covers, or at least the lyrics were often loosed altogether from their original musical contexts. Links were no doubt prodded in part by the comedy of anachronism, and as such the interpretations were related to novelty groups like Big Daddy, who in the eighties and nineties covered then-current hits in fifties styles. But Hamilton's spirit was of continuity rather than incongruity, with his message being that music, particularly in the hands of virtuoso vocalists, is endlessly malleable because – in some essential, time-blurring way – it’s all the same stuff. A similar spirit pervades Hamilton’s albums, including the just-released What I’m Feelin’ (RCA Records). His music is frequently referential but not retrogressive, steeped in the past but not wistful for it.

Hamilton’s rangy baritone already sounded weathered by years of gravel-road car trouble when he rose to delayed prominence in his early thirties, first as a guest vocalist on Nappy Roots’ goose-bump factory of harmonized class consciousness, “Po’ Folks,” then on his moody 2003 breakthrough album, Comin’ From Where I’m From. Now that he’s on the wrong side of forty-four, his voice is perhaps more age-appropriate. He always sounded like an elder statesman; it doesn’t hurt to be one.

Hamilton was raised in Charlotte, and his voice, to borrow from one of his songs, is steeped in “that Southern stuff.” Below and in the vicinity of middle C, he relaxes into an expressive, burry drawl evocative of Bill Withers, an antecedent underlined on 2011’s “Mad.” It’s a melancholy, intimate timbre suited to hardscrabble narratives such as 2005’s gothic funk melodrama, “Preacher’s Daughter,” and the earlier “Comin’ From Where I’m From,” sung from the vantage of a prisoner whose stony realism opens up to crying vulnerability on the bridge. Like Teddy Pendergrass, Charlie Wilson, and Bobby “Blue” Bland, Hamilton is adept at moving from mellow tones to full-throated pleas and barks, and he’s rightly seen as a rough, big-voiced anomaly in a generation dominated by smoother singers. Though most distinctive in the middle range, he’s not tied there: he has a supple falsetto, and his head voice is comfortable in tenor territory, as on “Never Letting Go,” a ballad from What I’m Feelin’ in which Hamilton is backed by country star Vince Gill’s acoustic guitar. A bland ballad, alas. Hamilton, who writes with various collaborators, sometimes gets mired in cliché and a certain melodic predictability, though the good on his albums consistently outweighs the so-so, and the high points can restore one’s faith in whatever faith needs restoration.

After working with a large team of sometimes new collaborators on 2011’s excellent, lavishly produced Back to Love, Hamilton returns on Feelin’ to more stripped-down arrangements mostly produced by longtime helpmate Mark Batson, a writer and multi-instrumentalist with a gritty sensibility matched to Hamilton’s. Listen, for instance, to the dirty, programmed hi-hat that sits upfront in the mix of “Love Is an Angry Thing.” That hi-hat would break up with you three hours after you were forced to put your dog to sleep. Batson’s touches are often highlights; his high synthesizer arpeggios, for instance, almost redeem “I Want You,” a slow jam featuring an unfortunate interlude of French-English pillow talk.

On records, Hamilton generally handles vocal harmonies himself – ably (he was a background singer on D’Angelo’s Voodoo tour). The harmonies are texturally enriched, though, when the HamilTones join him on the new album’s title track, a bittersweet love song nodding to early seventies harmony groups such as the Stylistics, the Chi-Lites, the Dramatics, and Blue Magic. Hamilton doesn’t use his falsetto till the song’s fade, but he takes on some nasal effects mindful of the Stylistics’ Russell Thompkins or Little Anthony Gourdine. It’s beautiful, though one wishes the song’s chorus hook weren’t patterned quite so closely on the Chi-Lites’ “Have You Seen Her?".

Elsewhere on the album, influences crop up more discreetly. As Hamilton confirmed during a recent performance for NPR’s Tiny Desk, the Salaam Remi–produced lead single, “Amen,” takes cues from R. Kelly in its staccato, sing-song phrases and tossed-off similes. “Take You Home” is a wonderful gospel waltz about introducing a new love to the family. “Ain’t No Shame” is a stomping blues, not a twelve-bar, with contributions from Gary Clark, Jr. and Al Anderson, the Nashville pro best known as the former guitarist with hard-touring eccentrics NRBQ. Mark Batson is a gifted keyboardist, but here he’s wisely content till the end to drum out eighth-note chords, especially effective on the song’s main progression: F to F minor to B-flat over a bass skulking from F to A-flat to B-flat. It’s the sort of change you can burrow in, though Hamilton’s character takes the opportunity to dream of departure. “I’m tired of folk around me always settling,” he shouts. “It’s a big world, why don’t you get off the porch?”

“Walk in My Shoes,” the album’s peak, starts with Batson as one-man rhythm section: a lovely, descending piano progression; a complementary bass line; an ultra-low kick drum and a reverberant cross stick. Hamilton enters: “Lost my wife, my cars, my home / I almost lost my mind.” For broader sympathy, he might have kept those cars singular, but probably we’re on board with a fall from greater heights. “My will was tested, got arrested,” he next adds. A small support group of Anthony Hamiltons enters for the chorus harmonies, along with smartly arranged synth strings and horns, but the song never introduces a bridge or a significant harmonic change, nor does it need to – Hamilton could sing fruitfully over this ebbing and flowing groove for a week and a half, and it makes sense for the song to be kind of stuck like its narrator. The guy’s sometimes revealing, sometimes guarded, sometimes self-pitying, sometimes accusatory, entirely clear if not exactly coherent. “I’ve been going through some things,” Hamilton sings, one of those spots where he could be accused of leaning on vague, empty phrases, but when he hits the line just right, it’s an understatement of well-wrought pathos. You can picture the speaker shaking his head, looking down at the table, maybe pushing aside the Visa bill, going through some things. Eventually he gets up, walks away, the piano plays a few bars on its own, and the sensitive listener hits Replay.

Dylan Hicks is a writer, musician, and the author of the novels Amateurs and Boarded Windows. His journalism has appeared in the Village Voice, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Paris Review Daily, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, Nina Hale, and their son, Jackson.

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