How to fix the St. Paul & the Broken Bones problem
Some days, the cruel irony of being a white, middle-class soul fan in his 20s kinda hits me like a ton of bricks. Sure, I know my stuff. I can tell you the difference between Eddie Floyd and Eddie Bo, but I was never there, you know? Most of the greats had given up touring by the time I came of age, or their legacy-mandated ticket prices were prohibitively expensive. I never even got to see old warhorses like Stevie, Aretha or Solomon Burke, who kept up the fight long after their peers.
I own the right records, I've read the right books, but the more I learn, the more I realize how far I am from truly connecting to the pained heat of soul music. It's a sound that's inextricably tied to a cultural trauma that I have had the privilege to never endure. Deep down, I know I'm a fraud. I gotta think "Saint" Paul Janeway and his Broken Bones feel that same way too, some mornings.
So what's a young fella to do? In my case, dive headlong into the modern revivalist soul sounds of labels like Daptone Records. Artists like Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley and their ace backing bands have crafted some near-religious experiences. Though they may not be legends, they show a deep and nuanced understanding of the music, using soul as a catharsis for a life of hardships and wringing every drop of emotion from those years. But Sharon Jones isn't getting any younger. At a certain point, we're going to run out of folks who were really there to keep the torch lit, and so I look for young talent to assume the mantle, and I can't help but pull a little harder for nerds that look like me taking their crack at it.
This usually gets me into trouble. Blue-eyed soul is, fairly often, a risky proposition. One wrong turn and you could sail right past the Rod Stewart parallel and end up on the rocky shores of Michael McDonald. Jesus, look what happened to poor Mayer Hawthorne. I loved that geek and his catchy pop-soul until the label told that him he was pretty enough to sell Hennessy to the Yacht-rock crowd. Fitz & The Tantrums got lost along the way as well, opting into a bland, Top 40-baiting synth sound that washed away all the charm of their debut. This sort of soul has burned me before, so naturally, I'm a bit jaded when a new artist crosses my path in that department these days. Years of disappointment have honed my bullshit detector into a precise machine, and St. Paul & the Broken Bones definitely set off a few alarm bells on the first scan.
Don't get me wrong, it was obvious from the start that these boys have done their homework on the genre. Their vocal, present brass section deftly mimics the famous interplay of Stax's Memphis Horns. Guitarist Browan Lollar has some lowdown Cropper tricks up his sleeve despite having one of the WASP-iest names in showbiz. Their full-length debut Half the City contains a myraid of loving references to touchstones like Otis Redding, Al Green, and Sam Cooke and delivers them with such sincerity that the weaker tracks tick dangerously towards cliche. But that sincerity is also what wins them a lot of their points. They're like that nerdy prom date you can't help but say yes too.
Paul Janeway's vocal performances leave the group's biggest impression, and are also at the crux of the band's identity. There's a running narrative about this group, that Janeway's voice seems out of sync with his plump, geeky appearance, but I'd call that a disingenuous assertion. In fact, Janeway sings almost exactly like he looks. His Buddy Holly specs, blazer and bow tie are all references to the showband uniforms of the '60s greats, but he can't help but look like a dandified junior accountant from the wrong angle. In turn, his vocals are suffused in great influences, a little Big O here, a little Bill Withers there, but there's moments where one gets the sneaking suspicion that they stumbled onto an episode of The Voice. Janeway has a nice touch, with a good grasp of melisma and a definite knack for Half the City's crackling slow jams, which showcase his mellower croon well. It's when the singer digs deep and goes for the big, gut-wrenching, squealing rave-up finales that things start to ring a little false.
That part of soul, the part that caused Otis to fall to his knees and claw at his chest, the part that made Marvin Gaye wanna holler and throw up both his hands, has meant something different to every performer. Heavy trauma drove Sam Cooke to write his magnum opus, "A Change is Gonna Come," the same song that Janeway and his band covered to close out their show during the last time they were in town, with the help of Lizzo -- natch. But I'm not sure I know yet where it comes from inside Janeway. Let's hope it's deeper than his mom throwing away his Nirvana CD.
Speaking of parental guidance, when questions like these stand in the way of my enjoyment of a record, my crutch response is to give it to someone else as gift and ask their take. So this year, as a (late) Mother's Day present, I gave my mom a copy of Half the City and asked for her take. My mom's cool, she actually was there to see some of the greats when they passed through, and her record collection is the entire reason that I fell in love with this music in the first place. She knows faux-soul from the real thing, I knew I could count on her to cast the tying vote to help decide if this band was the real deal or not. Her response? She loved it, couldn't wait to go out and buy a ticket for the upcoming show.
Is that because St. Paul & The Broken Bones are somewhat tame and mom-friendly? Well, yes, but that's not the only reason. You see, Half the City may struggle with authenticity, but there's a wide-eyed, utterly genuine celebration of music going on here. No matter how painfully square all these dudes in this band are, you can tell that they're deeply passionate about the songs they write and the influences they draw from. You just can't hate on something that's so obviously a labor of love. So I caved, I started to love St. Paul too, and I know why too. It's because deep down, I want to believe.
I want to believe that soul isn't something best kept behind glass in a museum somewhere, I want to believe that this is sound that hasn't yet seen its last great performer. I want to believe that one day we'll see another songwriter like Dan Penn, or David Porter. And deep down, in my heart, I want to believe that a guy like Paul Janeway can lead a soul band. Because there's two sides of this music, the side of suffering and the side of celebration and solidarity. St. Paul and I may never know the dark end of that street, but now I'm finally ready to meet him on the sunny side.
Tonight, St. Paul & The Broken Bones will perform with with Ryan Holweger at the Amsterdam Bar and Hall. The show is 18+, begins at 8pm, and is sold out.
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