Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“It’s about time Steve Winwood fronted a soul band,” you may say after an initial spin of this debut from the Black Pumas. But it won’t take long to realize that frontman/singer/songwriter Eric Burton is actually the vocalist for this Austin based R&B act. Still, his voice and phrasing is occasionally so similar to Winwood’s, and by association Ray Charles’, it’s easy to make the mistake.
Black Pumas is a project of Burton with songwriter/guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada, a Grammy-winning member of Grupo Fantasma and Brownout. Together they hired some session people to fill out the sound of this R&B based band, heavily influenced by both Motown’s classic years and Curtis Mayfield’s supple soul. The resulting songs straddle the lines between retro R&B and a singer/songwriter’s attention to lyrical detail. There are some sensual make-out tunes like “You Know Better” (“I gotta love you right/ I want to know you better”) and “Fire” with its reverbed, twang guitar (“Got a lover on my mind/ She keeps me wanting, steady wanting more”). But more spiritual matters are on Burton’s mind too.
On the groove-heavy “Confines,” he sings, “In life’s confines I try to let my soul refine” above honeyed keyboards, female backing vocals and even a closing violin. In the stripped-down (acoustic guitar and skeletal drums), closing “Sweet Conversations,” Burton testifies, “If I’m lost in my darkness with my soul on the pavement/ Won’t you speak with me spirit.” But it’s the opening bittersweet ballad “Black Moon Rising” that combines the spiritual and the physical with an instantly memorable chorus as Burton emotes with heart-palpitating sincerity, especially when shifting into falsetto. And for the poignant “October 33,” Burton’s acoustic guitar provides the foundation for a tune that sounds like something Van Morrison might have crafted in his Moondance period.
As the disc rolls on, there is an evenness to the overall vibe that feels a bit repetitive. Yet it’s so inviting, subtle and enticing, you can’t help but be sucked into Black Puma’s heartfelt musical swirl. Credit goes to Quesada for creating the overall palette with production that never overplays its hand. Still, it’s Burton’s vocals that create the focal point for music that consistently hits a sweet spot like the finest soul music from the ‘70s and ‘80s, without feeling the least bit retro.
The 10 tunes fly by in the fastest 40 minutes of your life. No need to pick and choose favorites either, because there’s little filler on a debut that knows the approach it wants and nails it with graceful professionalism and buckets of passion.