St. Paul & the Broken Bones: Young Sick Camellia

St. Paul & the Broken Bones
Young Sick Camellia
(Records JV)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

From the artsy cover illustration and unusual album title to its often impenetrable lyrics, there is very little predictable about St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ third platter. Except of course lead singer/frontman Paul Janeway’s remarkably vibrant, soulful voice and the sweet/sassy R&B of the horn-enhanced music. 

That may be enough to put this over the top for fans. Still, it’s a challenging listen, especially for those looking for meaning in the often inscrutable words that populate these tunes. Between the unrehearsed short snippets of found voices from elderly Southerners that punctuate the album in short bursts and production by Jack Splash (Kendrick Lamar, Mayer Hawthorne), this screams “major statement.” As such, it takes some patience to digest. The sound changes radically throughout the set from the radio-ready, slick disco-era groove of the opening “Convex” and the Bee Gees circa Main Course “Apollo” to the experimental percussion that kicks off “Mr. Invisible,” displaying the band’s diversity.

Unpacking what is going on with words such as “Domesticated problems losing all their teeth/ Can I police?” and “Judas ain’t dead in modern love/ Ambition kills all who want to run/ Take it all away” will require some time, if you’re willing to try. Titling a song “NASA” that never uses that word and only obliquely references “moondust” in its first words is another head-scratcher.

Better to focus instead on the shimmering, 60’s-styled R&B and Janeway’s instantly recognizable voice. He shifts into one of the most convincing falsettos since Barry Gibb on “LivWithOutU,” seemingly about loving a digital creation, and leaves the explanations behind the meanings for another day. There’s something magical when Janeway goes all Al Green on “Apollo” as the rhythm section grinds a groove as righteous as anything from the Philadelphia International label at its peak. 

The vibe alters for the ballad “Hurricanes” that gradually builds from an acoustic beginning to a rumbling crescendo.  It’s the album’s quietest moment, where Janeway’s voice takes a ghostly, often eerie approach. Strings enhance the throbbing ballad “Concave,” bringing a skewed, dreamy quality. The closing, orchestrated “Bruised Fruit,” a look at a crumbling relationship, gives Janeway the freedom to use his voice almost like a saxophone, skittering between the words with a nimble grace that glides from angry to sensitive. He’s a terrific, magnetic frontman.

Even if these songs (joint credited, along with Splash) are difficult, even impossible, to unravel conceptually and often too fussy for their own good, there’s enough pure retro soul music to grab your attention. A band this large is best when they don’t overthink the arrangements and just groove, something you wish would happen more often on this impressive if occasionally strained release.