Horns? Check. Rhythm section? Check. Soulful lead vocalist? Check. A neo-retro soul sound that will inspire listeners and bring heartbreak? CHECK. This is St. Paul and the Broken Bones, an incredible emerging band with a sound that is polished, authentic, and inspiring in the highest order. From first listen it was evident that these guys are extremely talented musicians with the kind of musical originality that the music landscape craves right now. Part rhythm, part blues, and a whole lot of soul, this is a band oozing with charisma in a genre-bending first album.
The first track “I’m Torn Up” is a premier heartbreak track. “You just gotta step on up!” It’s about taking risks in relationships. The lead singer Paul Janeway brings a raw, excited vocal quality to the group. It’s as if, at times, he’s about to levitate as much as his vocals take off. What makes this track sound so intriguing is the balance between the subtleties of the horns and the pure power of the vocals.
“Don’t Mean a Thing” is a jazzy, swinging reference to the Duke Ellington classic, but is not a cover. Slowing things down (complete with mood-setting organ in the background), this Muscle Shoals album sounds like vintage Motown. The soaring vocals and the accenting electric guitars highlight the obvious blues lyrics, “it hurts so bad… these stones I throw broke this heart of glass.” It hurts so good, don’t it?
The third track “Call Me” is THE SINGLE for this album. Full of heart, attitude, and swagger… more 60s than some of the other tracks, this is the music you forgot you missed from the good old days. “You’ve got to call me baby!” It’s about working through trouble in a relationship. His words serve to inspire her to come back. Top to bottom this track screams mid-60s Motown and it is exquisite. The production quality is just stunning. “I need you! I need you!” The funk of the guitars, the groove of the horns, and the sincerity of the vocals all make for a fantastic track.
Despite “Like a Mighty River” having a gospel connotation in the title, it’s actually a romantic love reference. The guitars on this one are just filthy good. It’s got a funky beat to it that is clearly showing development from the Motown era. The fresh sound is full of a freedom inspired attitude. “You’ve got to let it flow!” It’s a tour de force… it’s a coming of age kind of track that says that listeners need to let go and let love happen. Very 60s.
“Broken Bones and Pocket Change” must be the inspiration for the band’s name. Starting with an Otis Redding simplicity and a nice, soft backing rhythm, it almost feels like a slow dance track. It is, without a doubt, a true blues track. All she left me with was “broken bones and pocket change.” Now that’s pain, baby. Oh and the organ is in this one again… and it really makes that vintage sound believable. Of course, much like the rest of the album, it does not stay a slow track. The band kicks in, the vocalist bumps it up a notch, and he lets that beautiful heart bleed, “…had to say goodbye to my poor soul. Melody, Melody, Melody… why have you forsaken me?”
Title track “Half the City” without the horns would sound like other Muscle Shoals southern rockers. With the horns, though, has a completely unique sound. With a beat that begs dancing and a twang that begs a beer, it’s the kind of music that motivates movement. “Ain’t no way that I could stay every day…” It seems to be a song about fidelity, trials, and rocky relationships. But the end the lyric is “I know, I know this city’s made for me…” so maybe I missed the point altogether. But that’s one of the great things about this album. The groove is worth as much as the lyrics.
“Grass is Greener” begins with a gospel sound on the piano, followed by the band’s signature horn-vocal combination. Although a bit slower, the track is every bit as soul infused. It’s about a relationship gone awry. The half-step crawl of the piano chords creates a soft, comfortable sound. The mixture of church imagery and romantic love makes for a wonderful sound and sentiment. “We put on our Sunday best, but will never be married.” It’s real, raw, and blue.
“Let it be so” is matter of fact love song about perseverance in relationship. The instrumental break (and organ solo) might be one of my favorite parts of the album. The following “Dixie Rothko” is in the same vein as the rest of the album in terms of instrumentation and style, but the attitude is a little different. Still bluesy, but it is an empowering track rather than a true blues song. “When you love each other the way we do… get past all of that!” It connects the theme from the previous track, if even through a different focus.
The final “It’s Midnight” is the “thanks for coming to our show” track that I’d love to hear at the end of this amazing show. For all the excitement present in this album, I’m quite certain their live show is hair-raisingly good. I can’t wait to get to hear these talented musicians do what they do best. The song itself is about, well, what a lot of blues tracks do best… lamenting a mistake.
This album is phenomenal. It encapsulates classic American blues pop music from the mid-60s in particular. Otis Redding and Sam Cooke can be proud of this one. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve heard such a convincing, soulful act. These guys are going to be around for a long time and make several more important records. This is a must own for fans of good classic American pop or blues music. It’s got dance songs, love songs, and heartbreak songs, but they all share the same attitude and focus of a band wearing its collective heart on its sleeve.