Sea Of Noise

St. Paul And The Broken Bones

Records, 2016

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


For as much as it is prized and praised, originality is largely a myth; every artist recycles and reimagines what came before them, perpetually blurring the lines between homage and imitation. That’s true in every creative field that’s beyond its infancy, but perhaps none moreso than 21st century popular music. At least, that’s the thought that came to mind when contemplating a fervent, dynamic classic-soul big band made up of eight white guys who weren’t born yet when this genre had its heyday.  

St. Paul And The Broken Bones—Paul Janeway (vocals), Jesse Phillips (bass), Al Gamble (keys), Browan Lollar (guitar), Andrew Lee (drums), Allen Branstetter (trumpet), Jason Migledorff (sax), and Chad Fisher (trombone)—first made themselves known to this writer performing Sea Of Noise single “All I Ever Wonder” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on August 30, 2016, and I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how I feel about them ever since.

St. Paul’s sound is old-school, full-bodied soul music with strong funk and gospel overtones, like Al Green and Sam Cooke invited Sly Stone over for an all-night party. The element this particular group adds that advances that vision and gives it a bit of a fresh twist is fiery showmanship, a kind of Broadway/Vegas flair that leads them to push and amplify every moment they conceivably could in these songs, making them bigger and bolder and more emphatic. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Another key decision the group makes is not to play covers; this is an album of 10 original tracks—all credited to the entire band, though it’s been widely acknowledged that frontman Janeway is the group’s lyricist and Phillips its musical director—interspersed with a three-part interlude/overture, the dreamy “Crumbling Light Posts.”

“All I Ever Wonder” is definitely a highlight, all crooning and Hammond organ through the first verse until it hits the chorus and explodes—but it’s one of several. On the upbeat side of things, “Flow With It” rides a silky groove as Janeway mounts the pulpit for a sermon on earthly delights, while “Midnight On Earth” moves from hook to hook as the charismatic frontman sets his falsetto to “dazzle.” “Brain Matter” and “Tears In The Diamond” play with Motown tropes while addressing serious topics.

The ballads that make up about half of this album are uniformly solid but maybe a little less memorable, though the swaying horns and big finishes on both “Sanctify” and “Burning Rome” make an impression. Interestingly, while these songs and the performances heard here are drenched in emotion, the lyrics often don’t make it easy to connect; they tend to be intense but abstract, painting a series of flickering images and impressions rather than trying to tell a story.

Also notable is the fact that the Broken Bones have close ties with fellow Alabaman Jason Isbell and his crew; guitarist Lollar is formerly of Isbell’s band The 400 Unit, and Gamble’s brother Chad is the 400 Unit’s drummer. While one group plays Americana and the other soul, they share the same distinct sensibility and perspective of woke white Southerners, a profile that offers abundant material to unpack.

In the end, whatever misgivings I might have had about cultural appropriation were washed away by the sheer passion and commitment of St. Paul And The Broken Bones. They’re not imitators; they’ve simply embraced an archetypal style that they clearly revere and want to embody and uplift. On Sea Of Noise, St. Paul And The Broken Bones recreate key elements of classic soul as a framework for a set of passionate songs that might not always connect with your head, but never fail to reach your heart.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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