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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Anthony Hamilton Settles In

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Even more than most of the other neo-soul singers who emerged at the turn of the century, Anthony Hamilton felt like the product of a different era. He may have been raised on hip-hop culture—while he struggled to get his own albums released in the late '90s, he paid some bills singing hooks on rap records—but his weary voice always made him feel more like one of Bill Withers' contemporaries than anything on modern radio. He didn't just sound the part, either. He looked it. With his patchy facial hair and battered trucker cap, he seemed to embody a forgotten archetype of the penniless, down-and-out artist. When he pleaded for a fed-up girlfriend to return to him on his 2003 breakthrough hit "Charlene," it was easy to believe his desperation. Few singers sold hurt so convincingly.

Nearly a decade later, Hamilton cuts a very different figure. He's traded his casual caps and crumpled shirts for fine suits and glistening shoes, and he long ago lost the aura of a struggling artist. He's happily married now, thankful for his large family and his financial security, and that perspective has worked its way into his music. His recent albums, particularly this December's Back to Love, have been more upbeat and lighthearted than his downcast early works. He's simply having more fun now. Interviewed over the phone last week after a lazy afternoon beating the heat by the pool with his kids, Hamilton outlines his new priorities: "Family. Happiness. Just relaxing. A good cognac every now and then, followed by a glass of wine. Maybe a beer. Just really enjoying life, and not really stressing stuff you can't control."

These values, he realizes, are essentially universal. "Stability is what people search for in life, and they seek it out in music and movies," he says. "Sometimes they want to be scared, or thrilled. And sometimes they just want to feel that sense of security, and find that place where they feel everything is going to be OK. They want a sonic hug."

Back to Love
is generous with those hugs. "Let's catch a movie, then dinner," Hamilton sings on grinning soft-soul number "Best of Me," promising, "Tonight's the night we'll just unwind." The album isn't a complete shift from the '70s-indebted neo-soul Hamilton is best known for—Hamilton's bluesy voice still lends gravity to even his lightest material, and he still takes ample cues from Ron Isley and Bobby Womack—but Back to Love is smoother and slicker than Hamilton's early works, especially the three tracks produced and co-written by Babyface, the architect behind some of the most polished R&B of the '80s and '90s. That pairing might have been unthinkable at the turn of the century, when neo-soul seemed to exist in an entirely separate world than Babyface's studio-perfect adult contemporary, but it makes perfect sense now, given how Hamilton has broadened his range over the years to touch on more eras of R&B, soul and funk. Increasingly, no style seems out of bounds.

"We're seeing that all across music right now; artists are still reaching and searching, trying to either create this new thing, or go back and re-translate what they've heard before, trying to make it feel new," Hamilton says. "I like both approaches. Mostly, I just like the fusion of it all, and the thrill of coming up with something that you didn't expect. It's that element of surprise that really, really makes me feel happy."

Anthony Hamilton headlines Summerfest's BMO Harris Pavilion on Saturday, July 7, at 9:45 p.m.

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