First Impressions: Van Hunt, “The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets”

vanhuntDreadful and punny though it may be, the title of The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets actually serves a purpose: What it conveys is the album’s structural A-side/B-side divide, how its first seven songs are freaky, funky, and wild, and back seven slower, seductive, a bit more straightforward. This is a throwback to the way albums used to be made in the glory days of the vinyl LP, when picking the second-side opener really mattered and when a band might have devoted one side to fast songs and another to ballads. In some ways, it’s an unusually formal move for Van Hunt, an oddball funk/R&B singer who has long indulged in an impish humor and an omnivorous taste that got him kicked off the Blue Note label and sent back to indies; this new album was crowdsourced and, like his great album What Were You Hoping For?, self-released. The album’s dual structure undercuts some of his weirdness but emphasizes what’s always made his music work so well: Under all the quirks he’s a more than able writer and arranger, and his songs all have sturdy bones, and though the two halves of the album have some basic differences in character they all still sound like they’re cut from the same cloth. The front seven are busy, funky, and sexually ravenous, sounding like the kind of demented depravity that Prince has more or less abandoned with the onset of age and curmudgeonliness. “Vega (Stripes On)” rides hi-hat through a hard funk groove, complete with razor edge guitars and a spoken-word warning that “this next verse is full of similes and metaphors.” It’s Van Hunt at his more brazenly carnal and also his most awkwardly goofy: Listen to him pivot from “what good is a good girl in my wet dreams?” to “I’m the captain of this relationship.” His penchant for puns usually ends up a winsome counterbalance to his lothario shtick: He’s a guy who wants to get laid but maintains his sense of humor even when he doesn’t; he tries to be seductive but doesn’t have a perfect batting average. Even Don Draper goes to bed alone every now and again. The rest of the first side is similarly groovy and randy, running through the cling and clatter and cymbal crashes of “Pedestal” and the surging “Teach Me a New Language” before really getting weird and deep and funky on the nocturnal groove of “(Let It) Soak (N)” and the wah-wah Sly Stone vibe of “…Puddin.’” (Key lyric: “I don’t want nothin’ in my puddin’ but chocolate.”) The back seven open with “Headroom,” which one might naturally assume is another sexytimes pun but is actually a wrecked song of late-night loneliness and regret. “French for Cloud (Cstbu)” sparkles, “Rub My Feet (Suddenly)” lilts and coos, and “If I Wanna Dance with You” moves to the piano for the time-honored tradition of the overwrought, lovelorn power ballad, though it may not be as straightforward as it first seems. (Key lyric: “If I wanna dance with you I have to use my remote control.”) In less confident hands this record might collapse under comparison, not just to Prince but to D’Angelo, neither of who get as scruffy as Hunt does here: The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets is offbeat and cheerfully unapologetic about its musical roots and its auteur’s personality, which shines through at every turn and gives the album plenty of character: It wears eccentricity as its own kind of seductiveness.

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