Chicagoan George Hunter and his band Catfish Haven record for a label called Secretly Canadian, but if he’s secretly from somewhere else, Hunter has to be secretly Southern. Dude oozes front-porch soul like a honky-tonk barfly exudes stale-whiskey stench.
Hunter seemed to have it going pretty well. Catfish Haven’s debut EP, Please Come Back, was warmly received. But then one guy had to come along and throw a monkey wrench into things. And that man? Taylor Hicks. That’s right, your American Idol, that frosty-haired old chum who seems a little “off” the same way Billy Bob Thornton’s character in Sling Blade was.
Here’s the thing: It’s hard for me to listen to Catfish Haven’s first full-length, Tell Me, and not picture that chubby hick awkwardly dancing across an over-electrified Hollywood stage. Hicks’s and Hunter’s voices are just about dead ringers for each other. Thankfully, though, Hunter doesn’t resort to the Ray Charles wannabe “whoo”s and “yeah”s that Hicks crams into his singing style.
If you can get past the Hicks imaging (hardest to do on the sock-hopper “Another Late Night”), most songs on Tell Me are quite accomplished. At ten songs, the album is pretty evenly divided between an upbeat, rocking first half and a softer, sadder, more introspective second half. The title track sounds like a ’50s radio hit, Hunter worrying about whether or not he’s a good man while backing female vocalists clap along and engage in call-and-response. A loftier vocalist to compare Hunter to is Joe Cocker. “I Don’t Worry,” “Crazy for Leaving,” and “All I Need Is You” are full-throated tales of love and loss. (Apparently all songs here were inspired by a bad breakup Hunter had.)
The party starts slowing down with “If I Was Right,” on which Hunter rhymes the title with, “Then why can’t I sleep at night?” “Grey Skies” consists of a simply bluesy guitar riff nicely complemented by a plucky bass line. Hunter tries to get his spirits back up on “Let it Go (Got to Grow),” with the help of some Staxx soul saxes. But closer “This Time,” based on two lazily, languidly strummed chords, fades out into despair.
In the liner notes, the band thanks “all of the motherfuckers we got drunk with.” Come to think of it, Tell Me is the type of album to put on and curl up with a six pack on a sweltering summer night.