Had Ellis Hooks released "Godson of Soul" during the 1980s, the album's funky, down-home music and profusion of sweaty pleading and testifying likely would have been described as "neo-soul." Today, however, that appellation means something more urban and of the moment. At this point, Hooks's 21st-century update of the rock and soul of Otis Redding, Van Morrison and Solomon Burke might strike some people as unfashionable or retro.
In fact, though, the urgent singing and playing on Hooks's second U.S. release (his third album overall) is ageless, a case of an artist revivifying a musical vernacular that he loves and for which he has an undeniable affinity. With a tight, limber band that locks into a fundament-seizing groove, Hooks and producer Jon Tiven work a sweet junction where pop, rock, soul and a smattering of country music converge.
The two men avail themselves of more fatback funk on "Godson of Soul" than they have on either of the other albums they've made together. "High Roller" is a dense, roiling workout consisting mainly of staccato horns and sinewy guitar lines that are likely to put listeners in mind of the Ohio Players or Kool & the Gang. "Show Me Your Love" is a grinding, chank-a-lanking vamp that borrows its backbone from James Brown circa "Doin' It to Death." Here again, Hooks and his band don't so much re-create the sounds of a bygone era as they reanimate them, sometimes with scuffed-up garage-rock rhythms, but most often with the sort of sweeping pop lyricism that never goes out of style.
The double entendre that Hooks and his co-writers employ on many of the songs, however, is all blues, and some of it is pretty salacious. The imagery can be clumsy, such as when Hooks boasts, "Girl, you got my steak fryin' in your pan," in "Litta Bitta Lovin." On steamy tracks such as "Show Me Your Love" and "Honeysuckle," though, the eroticism is forthright and earned, much as it is on the recordings of intrepid contemporary sensualists such as Macy Gray.
Hooks's considerable charisma -- he has a sweet demeanor, sings in a raspy shout, and is a strutting showman onstage -- makes even the most cliched narratives on the record ("Chainsaw," "High Roller") convincing. The 13th of 16 children born to Alabama sharecroppers, Hooks comes by this credibility honestly -- by way of the blues as lived.
As testimony to that birthright, a procession of luminaries joins Hooks on the album. Steve Cropper, once a mainstay of Booker T. & the MG's and a frequent collaborator of Otis Redding's, uncoils stinging guitar barbs in "Was It Something I Said?" The great gospel-soul singer and guitarist Bobby Womack also appears on that track (via an answering machine message), and Wayne Jackson of the vaunted Memphis Horns plays trumpet and trombone throughout. Resolutely ecumenical, Hooks even sings a duet ("Chainsaw") with Kentucky honky-tonker Marty Brown.
Thematically, Hooks, who is barely in his thirties, sticks close to what he knows -- adult concerns ranging from sex and relationships (faithful and otherwise) to faith, doubt and getting in and out of scrapes. It's all of a piece, and all of it is evidence of how durable and elastic soul music remains, especially when in the hands of a committed lifer such as Hooks.