As frontman for Mary My Hope, James Hall displayed the same mysterious, androgynous qualities as Bowie’s Thin White Duke. The Atlanta group had a good deal more angst and melancholia swirled into the mix, though — its EP wasn’t named Suicide Kings for nothing. Mary My Hope’s edgy, unbalanced style would later be unknowingly repeated, to great commercial success, by Smashing Pumpkins; in the late ’80s, people were just scared off by it. Hall, who was born in Houston and raised in Nashville, left the band and kept heading south, to New Orleans, where his dark, brooding tendencies could bloom into a solo career. (Mary My Hope guitarist Clinton Steele, meanwhile, played on World of Skin’s Ten Songs for Another World.)
My Love, Sex and Spirit invokes a sensual, often lovely world where anger and sadness boil and hiss beneath a smoldering surface. The music bears some resemblance to Mary My Hope’s melodic guitar drive, though Hall’s trio (guitarist Lynn Wright, bassist Grant W. Curry and drummer Mark Brill) never indulges his former group’s arena rock impulse. Eclectic, shifting tempos and arrangements, bold trumpet blares and Hall’s singing — which veers from howling fury (“Spade”) to slithering sexuality (“Sinster”) — create a mesmerizing hybrid of rock, goth and jazz. Hall still often slips into Bowie mode (especially on the deeply theatrical, tension-filled strumming of “So Precious”), but there are plenty of Jim Morrison and Peter Murphy influences lurking about, too. The cryptic, oddly poetic musings are simultaneously cocky and consumed with self-doubt, a dichotomy Hall exploits in “Spade” when he maniacally growls, “I’m a rockstar — cracking.”
Though Hall celebrated his major-label debut by moving back to Atlanta, leaving sultry New Orleans behind did little to alter his music. If anything, he delves deeper into his frankly sexual persona on Pleasure Club, becoming even more darkly alluring and dangerous. The title track features a sinewy verse, followed by a seething, intensely erotic chorus. “Spade” reappears here, slowed way down and retitled “Black Is Black.” The spindly “I’m Needy” and the soulful “Illingness” are amazingly strong, as is “Heatwave Radio.” Hall’s singing is more ragged and urgent; he’s finally developed a distinctive vocal style of his own. Few can match Hall’s charismatic delivery; like a mythological siren, he draws listeners into his clutches.