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Published: 2012/11/01
by Brian Robbins

Mr. Hunter
The First Chapter


On one hand, it’s hard not to compare the opening track on Mr. Hunter’s The First Chapter – “Sand” – to Phish’s “Backwards Down The Number Line”. There’s the joyous ripping-down-the-road-in-the-microbus grin of the chug-a-lug guitar and the sweet cheese of the keys – followed by the happy declarations of the lyrics, full of Zen and self-realization.

On the other hand, Mr. Hunter is way more than another jam band trying to pull off its own interpretation of the Big P experience. You know who this quintet really sounds like?

Mr. Hunter – and that’s a good thing.

In the course of the nine cuts on The First Chapter David Lowenthal (bass) and Rossen Nedelchev (drums) lock in to produce grooves ranging from titanium-and-tie-dye fusion to legs-dangling-off-the-tailgate straw stomp. The pair work as a team without grandstanding or unnecessary flash – an octolimbed rhythm machine in total servitude to the pocket. Listen to the opening seconds of “The Light” for a quick primer in what makes these two so good: Lowenthal establishes a strong feeling of backbone-thumping tension that’s only intensified by Nedelchev’s slightly-stuttering drum-and-cymbal work. Subtle and perfect. Or how about the slippery, rubbery bass ‘n’ drums that sets the table for “I Believe”? That’s some funky grease, right there.

Keyboardist Jason Yeager provides a neat mix of flavors throughout the album, ranging from quiet accents to boisterous, full-throttle romps. Check out the yin/yang of his left hand/right hand when he joins in with Lowenthal and Nedelchev on the aforementioned “The Light”: broad brush strokes of organ are countered by slightly jarring piano notes that complement Lowenthal’s bass pulse. “The Corner” finds Yeager morphing from jazzbo flick-of-the-wrist coolness to booster rocket joy, helping to propel the tune’s joyous outro jam over the top. And on the multi-mooded instrumental “Morse Code”, Yeager invites us in with some wistful and sweet piano that feels like a sleepy-eyed Sunday morning on Bourbon Street – before all hell breaks loose and he and guitarist Chris Marcus lead their bandmates on a wild-eyed barnburner.

Speaking of Mr. Marcus: he plays some wicked guitar, boys and girls – pulling off the cool feat of offering up warm and familiar ideas without ever resorting to technique or tone clichés. His solos have a point – and they reach said point in a manner that’s true to the given tune’s vibe. He also happens to be Mr. Hunter’s tunesmith, knowing how to write a strong song first and help craft an appropriate jam if/when the mood calls for it.

In the middle of all this is vocalist Kara Ayn Naplitano, blessed with a set of pipes that can lay it down gently or dig deep and belt it out – while making it sound easy the whole time. The words may be Marcus’, but Naplitano gets them, delivering observations and emotions that range from intimate introspection to gospel-like joy. She never tries to come across as a blues broad or earthmotherhippiechick in her delivery; she simply nestles in to the tunes and wears them well.

Having said all that about Marcus’ songwriting talents and the band’s ability to interpret each piece’s essence, there is the matter of many, many tasty jams on The First Chapter. Take “Welcome”, for example: after an interlude of dizzying carnival spiral by the band, Yeager eases into some piano that hints at Traffic in a playful mood. Taking his time in building the intensity of the jam, Yeager eventually achieves liftoff and hands off the lead to Marcus, who proceeds to work the fretboard in a display that has more to do with shaping and reshaping ideas than it does blazing chops. He bounces passages off himself, responding to his own challenges with a slightly different angle on things. By the tune’s end, the whole band has reached the crest, voices and instruments united: “Welcome to the show!”

“The Stranger” takes you by the hand and leads you safely from darkness to light; “Sand” proves you can get serious without getting too heavy; and Yeager lays down some absolutely joyous piano on “The Corner” while Marcus’ guitar pulls off a slow climb to ecstasy and the Lowenthal/Nedelchev wumblethump groove beast does somersaults – all hands grinning madly along the way.

Almost every tune on The First Chapter makes you want to hear Mr. Hunter in a live setting – at the same time, they don’t feel tethered by the studio in the least. The band actually seems oblivious – in a good way – to their surroundings, simply doing their thing.

If Chris Marcus is the sower of the seeds of these songs, Mr. Hunter is a fine team of sonic farmers, nurturing and coaxing the music’s bloom. And The First Chapter is an outstanding first-time harvest.

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