ALBUM: Half the City
ARTIST: St. Paul & the Broken Bones
As listeners in 2014, what do we do with the release of a new soul album? In the midst of dubstep, glitch music, and other newly popular genres that depend on cutting-edge technologies as instruments themselves, what is there to consider in an album that makes no apologies for its love of and dependence on a genre that has persisted through decades? One listen of Half the City, the full-length debut from St. Paul & the Broken Bones, answers that question for us: we listen to it, we scrunch our faces with delight, we skip back to the beginnings of songs in order to re-live the track's visceral emotional experience. Quite simply, we let its soul have a conversation with ours.
“Familiar” can be a dangerous word in art. “Familiar” has one foot in cliché and one foot in its etymological “family.” As consumers of art, we tend to harbour disdain for the cliché, yet, as humans, we lean on family for comfort, for peace of mind, for loyalty. Half the City is familiar in this familial way. It is no surprise, for example, that this debut comes to us from Muscle Shoals, Alabama. While injecting its modern riffs, occasional funky rhythms, and massively impressive vocal identity, the record also carries with it the echoes of Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, and James Carr—artists of the golden age of soul who also called Muscle Shoals a recording home. Moreover, Half the City's firm grounding in the pentatonic scale—perhaps the most familiar scale in modern music—puts listeners in that malleable, mellow mood, and its reliance on simple riffs allows Paul Janeway, the band's lead vocalist and canonized “saint,” to explore his full vocal range, both tonally and emotionally.
It is the album's vocals that make it the most memorable, as Janeway's talents are more frequently put on full display. A voice grown on gospel, Janeway has that characteristic syrup about his voice. What makes his singing special is his ability to modulate the emotion with which he sings. At times, when the song calls for it, his vocals are thin and fragile. At others, he sings with a declarative, moderate force. Then, at the album's most jam-packed emotional moments, he resorts to that ever-soulful back-of-the-throat wail that calls on Aretha Franklin and Koko Taylor.
This isn't to say, however, that Janeway is the band's most talented member or that the rest of its members—Browan Lollar (Guitars, Vocals), Andrew Lee (Drums, Percussion), Jesse Phillips (Bass), Allen Branstetter (Trumpet), and Ben Griner (Trombone, Tuba)—aren't up to the task as musicians. In fact, I can personally attest to Lollar's abilities as a more front-and-center lead guitarist. When he was a member of Jason Isbell's 400 Unit, Lollar would dazzle at live shows with his pick-less solos and hard-rocking cover of The Talking Heads' “Psycho Killer.” I believe it is this absence of the pick—which puts Lollar in direct contact with the sounds he makes—that helps him fit so well in this outfit. His feel is uncanny, and that musician-to-instrument connection is important for the Broken Bones. It is simply not “the point” for the Broken Bones to consistently show off as masters of their instruments. Their duty on Half the City is to stay “in the pocket” of the groove and hold up St. Paul's sometimes tenuous, sometimes raging vocals. It is in this way they show mastery of their instruments. At each moment, it seems that the vocals are in some way a response to the instrumental tracks—whether that response be an echo of sadness, a sprite of joy, a statement of hope, or a declaration of love. The vocals work in tandem with the guitar and horn melodies throughout most of the album's verses. When the songs shift into bridge and chorus, control is relinquished to Janeway, who's tonal and rhythmic changes direct the song into a new mode. At the album's many emotional peaks—in the third and fourth minutes of “Dixie Rothko,” for example—the lyrics break down and turn to gravel in the back of Janeway's throat, and he delivers a long holler. These hollers are the carriers of joy, of desperation, of an emotion that the song itself defines and that listeners recognize but remains untraceable through language.
These are the moments we search for in music. These are the moments we search for in art: the indescribable thing that occurs in our natural collaboration with the artist, the art itself, and the space in between. It is this space in between that successful art fills. For St. Paul & the Broken Bones, that space is often times an emotional emptiness created by unrequited love, by an exhaustion of the heart, or simply by the gap between songs. Each track works to fill that gap-with commiseration, with a confession, with a declaration of hope—and while some do it more effectively than others, the album at its best fills and fills, and the cup overflows.
“Broken bones and pocket change is all she left me.”