St. Paul & the Broken Bones - Half the City

Birmingham-based St. Paul & the Broken Bones riff and wail their way to an emotionally-charged debut.

Additional Info

8.0

ALBUM: Half the City

ARTIST: St. Paul & the Broken Bones

2014

R&B/Soul

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.”

1. I'm Torn Up
The opening riff of the album immediately tells us what we're in store for. It's simple, exact, and set in the minor pentatonic scale. Janeway's first lyrics—ones he sings delicately, as if on the verge of collapse—do the same: “Hello, sweetheart.” It's a song addressed to a former lover and appropriately laden with sustained horns, a slow cadence, and a crescendo to the chorus, which reiterates the track's title. As the song progresses, lines like “I know, I know that you love me,” provide a building sense of hope for the lovers to reunite. By the second chorus, Janeway's lyrics have gained in emotion, volume, and intensity. His voice goes to the back of the throat and rattles around—something listeners will be very familiar with by the album's end. This dichotomy of lament and hope, coupled with the track's understated musical accompaniment, provides a solid base upon which the rest of the album can stand. 7.5
2. Don't Mean a Thing
This track starts off quickly, with a few runs through a bass- and horn-driven introduction. It's a menacing way to start a track that breaks down to a slow, stripped-out tandem of drums and vocals about thirty seconds in: “Why, why did it get so dark?” Here, the lyrics trade off with a simple, three-note guitar riff. The reverb-laden guitar work put down by Lollar is the perfect complement to Janeway's lyrics and feel as the song then returns to its quick beginning for the chorus. Had the band elected to include a more complex, technically difficult accompaniment, the song would have suffered from it. This gives Janeway the room to inject his soulful inflections on simple lyrics—like “Oh, it hurts so bad”—and give them more weight than they carry on the surface. 8.3
3. Call Me
This track might be the most soul-familiar on the entire album. With lyrics like “You've got your limit, and, baby, I've got mine,” followed by a full-on wish to “Call me” that includes a phone number, this track feels most like it builds on a template. As the song reaches its peak, all of the instruments go quiet, and Lollar's guitar comes in with a strummed riff that the rest of the band, including Janeway, eventually joins for a jam before a return to the chorus. This is a song that may not revolutionize, but it's fun and easy to enjoy. Roll down the windows and turn it up on the first warm day of spring. 7.3
4. Like a Mighty River
This track, which rides on the shoulders of a funkier groove, begins, “All I need is a little tender touch.” With a more distorted guitar riff, made more forceful with matching horns, this desire is compounded and deepened. The second verse picks up momentum, with Janeway declaring, “But there ain't, but there ain't no one can cut me like the words she used.” After the second chorus clears in the echoe's of Janeway's “Your love, my love, our love, oh, is like a mighty river, baby,” Lollar puts down an intricate, funky riff that calls on an equally funky cadence from Lee, and the band jams the song to its successful climax. 8.5
5. That Glow
Immediately, “That Glow,” puts us in a darker place, with its heavily-chorused guitar riff that explores the lower end of its range and with Janeway's somber declaration: “I've lost my senses for that child that went away.” This song's slow, wavy exploration of a lover lost into another's arms plays like a long, extended prayer. Its woeful groove relies heavily on notes that are left to ring out beneath Janeway's vocals. This track, however, is one of the few that might not quite satisfy itself and its listeners, as it ends abruptly. It feels like there is more that could have been explored. 6.9
6. Broken Bones & Pocket Change
A sort of “title track” in that it carries half of the band's name, this song is a sort of definition for what the band is. It navigates familiar lyrics—“Young love has made me old”—provides listeners with long, stretched out horn notes, and sways us with a pendulum-like scale exploration on guitar. As the track gains momentum, Janeway laments “Ain't nobody, ain't nobody gonna love me.” We are then hit with the beautifully peculiar chorus: “Broken bones and pocket change is all, is all she left me.” Janeway cries, “I got it bad, baby. I got it oh so bad.” This track has it bad, too, as evidenced by its manic nature between quiet verse and furious chorus, its emotional build up and eventual let-down. It would be best to listen to this track at Waffle House, with a hangover, after a bad break-up.9.5
7. Sugar Dyed
“Sugar Dyed” provides listeners with a welcome shift from the two somber tracks that precede it. Its faster pace is punctuated with its foregrounded snare drum and tambourine, and the lyrics match this more joyful pace. Above the shorter horn notes and the rounded guitar riff, Janeway cries, “Love me, love me, love me. Love me 'til the lights come on.” The song gradually creeps up the notes of its key until it can go no further, at which point Lollar is again left by himself to invite listeners back to his catchy melody. The instruments begin to pile back on, and Janeway returns, “Got to love, got to love, got to love me” before the song's conclusion. Like “That Glow,” this track seems to come to an end too soon, as it doesn't sustain its riff- and wail-based jam quite long enough to fully satisfy.7.3
8. Half the City
The album's title track returns listeners to the band's funkier side, with its moderate pace and partially palm-muted guitar riff. “Half the City” also features a little more complexity in its changes between verse, bridge, and chorus, which also harkens back to its funky roots. Lollar and Phillips work nicely in tandem here, as one's playing weaves in and out with the other. As a title track should do, “Half the City” does an effective job of acting as representative for the album, and while it doesn't reach the same height of many of the emotional peaks on the rest of the album, Janeway's vocals are as heart-felt and enjoyable as ever. 7.7
9. Grass Is Greener
Phillips' bass work drives most of the song here, as his more winding scale progressions are foregrounded in front of the short staccato of Branstetter's and Griner's horns. If there's one song to show the group's ability to build emotion through sound, it's this one. As the title suggests, the song addresses the fallacy of assuming what's different is better, and as the track progresses, it devolves into a begging wail: “Pleases don't leave me, please don't leave me. I can't have you leavin' me.” Phillips' bass line is eventually coupled with longer, distorted playing from Lollar, and the instrumental intensity picks up at the behest of Janeway's vocals. In the fourth minute, the track returns wonderfully to a common melody while Janeway continues his loud, wailing lament. 8.7
10. Let It Be So
The horns get the introduction in “Let It Be So,” with long, soft notes. As the verse arrives, they disappear, and Janeway, accompanied by Phillips and Lollar, comes in with delicate, loving vocals. Here, Janeway's voice pulls heavily from Otis Redding, which can never be anything other than a compliment. As the listener has come to expect, after a few bars we get a brief Broken Bones shift into a groovier, head-bobbing mode. The song continues to modulate between these two, and it feels like it's done honestly. By this point in the album, it's evident that St. Paul & the Broken Bones knows what they're doing, and they believe in a soul unique to their group. The music is genuine, and this song speaks to that as much as any other.7.7
11. Dixie Rothko
“Let It Be So” seems to bleed directly into “Dixie Rothko,” as Janeway begins again in the Redding mode. As is the case in “Grass Is Greener,” the song does a masterful job of slowly and satisfyingly reaching an emotional peak. As the song builds, Lollar puts his soloing prowess on display. Underneath the vocals, the guitar runs up and down the scale. While this sort of shredding isn't going to make any arguments for Lollar's place in any fanboys' “best of” lists, that isn't what he's trying to accomplish. Here, the lead works as marginalia for the vocals, not only matching the emotion as Janeway's voice breaks down into a wail—returning forcefully, again and again to “I know we're gonna make it”—but as something that deepens that emotion, that gives it depth, just as is the case, as the title indicates, in a Rothko work. This is the best song on the album.10.0
12. It's Midnight
With more extensive acoustic guitar and piano work, “It's Midnight” brings the album to a quiet conclusion. Coming up shy of three minutes, this track acts as a last-call. It's repeated declaration of “I been bad” is memorable, and there are several characteristic hollers from Janeway. There isn't much to this somber number, but it does an effective job of gathering up its listeners, showing them the door, and reminding them to come back next time.7.0
Written by P.J. Williams
P. J. Williams writes and teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, DIAGRAM, Nashville Review, Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, and others.



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