In her treatise Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music, music scholar Jennifer C. Lena describes how music progresses through 4 phases in its life. A musical genre starts off as avant-garde - weird different new. If it is successful/liked, then a scene grows up around it. If a scene is successful, the music industry will descend on the scene and mass market what they can. And then, eventually, after a genre has become so well established that everyone knows it, there will eventually come a Traditionalist revival that seeks to restore integrity to something mass-marketed.
In the Traditionalist phase, people are concerned with "authenticity" and "accuracy". You can see this in people going to The Star Bar to see Rockabilly acts dressed like they stepped off the set of Happy Days, in the neon green mohawks and studded leather jackets of kids seeing the latest skate punk act at The Masquerade, in the required straight long hair and beer-swilling antics of guys seeing the latest metal band... But there is more to the quest for authenticity than a clothing style (Lena points out how the clothing style -- the outward signifiers -- start during the Scene phase, then become codified and diluted when the Industry mass markets the sound), there is a rigidity of the sound.
Bands that make music in certain older genres stick within narrow definitions of what the music is.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones are, in Lena's estimation, a Traditionalist Soul Act. I, personally, love soul music, and i find a lot of the Traditionalist Acts in this genre to be entertaining. But, if i am honest, the music on this record could easily have been made any time since, oh, the mid-1960s. St. Paul and The Broken Bones successfully recreate the sound that one associates with old soul music.
I say all of this because if you are someone who does not enjoy old soul music, there will be nothing here for you. This style of music was calcified when David Ruffin left the Temptations in 1968.
However, this music does speak to a certain population, seeing as there is a lot of this stuff out there (see also, Michael Kiwanuka, Ruby Velle and the Soulphonics, Curtis Harding, etc.). So there is a market for it, and where there is a market someone will create a product.
And this is really good product.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones are a band from Birmingham, AL, and this is their debut album. The band lineup is what you think of for this genre: voice, guitar, rhythm, horns.
As soon as i put the record on, i am taken back to my childhood, which is, really, the point of Traditionalist musical acts. I'm Torn Up starts with a bass riff tinkling over plaintive horns. A male voice, scratchy and emotive, wanders in, drawing out the notes as the horns existentially mourn the pain of life. It builds to a climax, St. Paul wailing over the band. Beautiful.
The next song, Don't Mean a Thing starts messy, the horns swirling as the keys echo and the band tears at it. The music parts and St. Paul (Paul Janeway) cuts lose, wailing away, aching. A bent guitar note (courtesy of Browan Lollar) plays accent, but St. Paul is the star here, pushing his voice, showing you what he can do.
They get their funk on for Call Me, Lollar counting off a little trilling riff as the drums tap happily. This is a good old soul dance number to shuffle the feet to as you bounce around your home. Lollar really shines here with a lovely echoed guitar riff.
Like a Mighty River is a mid-tempoed number, and sadly one of the most forgettable on the record. The one that comes after it is a really stunner. It's a slower number called That Glow and there is a piano part in the middle, and when that piano hits it really tears at you. How can a little piano riff, buried under voice and horns, hit you in the gut like that? Keyboardist Al Gamble really did a great job here. It ends with a nice upswell of horns. Wonderful.
On Broken Bones & Pocket Change Lollar and the rhythm section play early 1960s bubble gum pop -- think that kind of stuff that Frankie Valli sang over. Well, they play that, and St. Paul lets loose over it, really tearing at it on the choruses when the horns join in.
They channel Saturday Looks Good To Me on Sugar Dyed. It has that kind of catchy beat and general sauntering feel to it, with the guitar riff something off of Every Night. If only there were a female singer here, this could have been a SLGTM tune. And i mean that as a compliment.
Title track Half the City is a slower, sparser number. The guitar is overdriven here, kind of roaring under the horns. That's a nice effect. They slow it down for Grass Is Greener, a little sad, but grooving along nicely.
They tear it up (again) on Let It Be So. The whole band is just going at it here. The beat is dangerously catchy, and those horns! Wow! The song is mournful, plaintive, the horns and guitar and voice screaming about pain and loneliness. Beautiful.
Dixie Rothko is a slow grinder, the guitar and voice and everything just building to a real climax with St. Paul wailing away. And finally the record ends with It's Midnight, in which the horns saunter, the piano plinks, and St. Paul bellows away. It's a great end to the record.
And this is a great record. It has that mix of swinging rhythms and mournful lyrics, of catchy riffs and bellowed vocals. Anyone who enjoys old soul music will want to check this out. My question, i guess, is do i need to get my hair cut short and wear a suit to really enjoy this album? How Traditionalist do i have to get to really listen to this?