When Berry Gordy recommends a singer, it’s probably worth taking notice. The newest singer to win the Motown mogul’s approbation is New York based singer/songwriter Morgan James who debuts here with a 14 tracker simply called ‘Hunter’. James, though, is no newcomer to the business. She started out in musical theatre and has featured on Broadway in shows like ‘The Addams Family’, ‘Wonderland’, ‘Godspell’ and – more tellingly – ‘Motown- The Musical’, in which she played Teena Marie. It was that role that brought her to Gordy’s attention and he warmingly described her as “a multi-talented performer… a pure delight…she can do it all”. With that sort of testimonial it wasn’t long before the labels came a–knocking with Morgan eventually signing with Epic/Sony and ‘Hunter’ is the first fruit of the partnership.
Standout soul track on the album is a remarkable cover of Prince’s ‘Call My Name’. Ms. James takes few liberties with it. She keeps thing simple – cranking up the song’s latent drama. But what makes the cut so special is the voice. At one time both powerful and tender, it will remind soul connoisseurs of the late, and yes, great Teena Marie… little wonder that James was outstanding in that role in the Motown tribute show.
The album offers two more covers – retreads of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Dancing In The Dark’ and Hall and Oates’ ‘She’s Gone’. The Boss song is stripped own and slowed down and the treatment is hugely successful while ‘She’s Gone’ receives a “traditional” treatment. It’s a great song anyway and it would be hard to make a mess of it. The choice of covers though is significant and, I think, highlights the conundrum that faces Ms. James. It seems that she and her people can’t decide whether she’s to be an AOR artist à la Springsteen, a blue eyed soulstrees in the mode of H&O or indeed something quite different and that’s reflected throughout the rest of the long player.
Musically there are all kinds of flavours here. ‘Bring Yourself To Me’ is a bright, breezy pop outing; ‘Drown’ is a country rock rumble; ‘Fed Up On You’ is the attempt to create a kind of Motown/Northern soul feel; ‘Heart Shake’ is a stomper that channels the Amy Winehouse/Daptone thing. Add to those a catchy title track and a number of dramatic ballads that offer varied levels of intensity (one, ‘Let Me Keep You’ features a Robert Glasper cameo) and you have a varied album that’s hard to pigeon-hole. What brings the unity is the singer’s powerhouse voice that, I’m sure, had no problems carrying all the way to the gods in those cavernous Broadway theatres and once Morgan James decides exactly what she wants to be then we’ll have a major force on our hands.