Hooks expands beyond soul sound

When struggling soul man Ellis Hooks left America to hone his craft in Europe he didn't have a record deal and he was so down on his luck that he had recently spent time sleeping in graveyards and playgrounds. If he could have hoofed it across the Atlantic to save on airfare, he probably would have done so.

Once in Europe, though, it didn't take Hooks long to catch on — at least with the critics. He received rave reviews on the heels of his 2002 debut, Undeniable, and suddenly the man who couldn't buy a break in the States found his name mentioned in the same sentence as soul greats Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke.

For Hooks, who had been performing in Central Park mere months before, things were certainly looking up.

With a critically acclaimed American debut under his belt, 2003's Up Your Mind, Hooks continues to demonstrate what all the hype is about on Uncomplicated.

But simply pigeonholing Hooks as an old-school soul belter would be a great disservice to the man and his diverse array of talents. In fact listeners who pick up Uncomplicated solely looking for a nostalgic trip back to the heyday of 1960s soul might not make it past the album-opening "Gonna Take Some Time."

That's their loss, as Hooks delivers an exquisite acoustic love story that invokes more thoughts of folkie Bob Dylan than it does of Otis Redding.

Of course, Hooks didn't gain his "future of soul" tag by recording mid-tempo numbers featuring restrained vocals.

He fully stretches his considerable pipes on Uncomplicated's third track, "Can't Take This No More," a rockin' blues number on which Hooks sounds like he studied under 1950s wild man Little Richard — even down to the track's half-crazed opening "Wooo!"

In stark contrast to "Can't Take This No More," Hooks returns to joyous folk-rock territory with the serene "Sweet Justina." It's one of the catchiest tracks on the album, and aside from the exhilarating funk of "The Hand of God" and first single "Forty Days & Forty Nights," it may be Hooks' best chance at getting attention from the masses.

Though the 29-year-old Hooks makes sure to highlight his genre-hopping abilities, he doesn't disappoint fans looking for that classic soul sound. His gritty wail fuels the funky haze of desperation swirling around him on "It's A Hassle" ("I'm tired of getting stepped on/Screwed up and messed around/From head to toe/Too many people/Too small a space/Nowhere to go"). He also crafts a similar atmosphere on "The Idea of You" thanks in large part to the haunting guitar licks of Duane Jarvis.

Hooks' talents aside, credit has to be given to producer Jon Tiven for giving the Alabama native first-rate session players to work with — including Tiven himself. Tiven, who co-wrote all of Uncomplicated along with Hooks and wife Sally Tiven, provides his budding star with genuinely good grooves to work with thanks to his lead electric guitar, harmonica and saxophone playing.

For all the variety present throughout Uncomplicated, Hooks closes the album with a three-track block of unapologetically gritty soul — where he's at his best. Hooks takes listeners through tales of a crime spree gone wrong ("Slide The Gun"), a fragile love affair ("M'Baby") and emotionally charged accusations of infidelity punctuated by his most jaw-dropping vocal performance on "That's Not What I Need."

Uncomplicated stands out as one of the best soul albums in recent years thanks to Hooks and his willingness to buck the genre's tried-and-true formulas while not forgetting the past. A man who's found his sound, the now-successful Hooks shouldn't need to contemplate hiking across the pond any longer.

Grade: AB