St. Paul and the Broken Bones
Sea of Noise
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Fans that latched on early to St. Paul and the Broken Bones after their 2014 debut must have been wondering when, how or even if the Birmingham, Alabama soul outfit featuring the searing vocals and magnetic stage presence of frontman Paul Janeway would get around to following it up. That sophomore studio set is here and it was worth the wait.
Where the band’s horn soaked debut was heavy on a somewhat retro Stax style albeit lighter on solid songs and subtlety in the arrangements, this one rights that ship in a big way. Credit producer Paul Butler, fresh off Michael Kiwanuka’s stunning new disc, for molding these tracks with a restraint and balance often absent from the group’s previous studio set. Selections such as “Waves” build gradually with a soulful lick that runs through the track as background singers bring the gospel for socio-political lyrics like “All the people they are praying but there ain’t no love no more/just bullets and hate.”
The easy flowing vibe on tracks like the widescreen “Brain Matter” is enhanced by strings that add drama to chilling subject matter expressed in “that’s my daddy with a gun shooting someone else’s son” over emotional and dialed down Janeway vocals that shift into Barry Gibb-styled falsetto and a low key yet driving melody that kicks in on first spin. Similarly, “Tears in the Diamond” shimmers with an Al Green vibe straight out of 60s Memphis and the deep soul blues of “Sanctify” allows Janeway to work his vocals with an elasticity and riveting intensity that wasn’t apparent on the first outing.
The songwriting is elevated from serviceable to stunning, especially in the gender-bending “I’ll Be Your Woman,” an album highlight where Janeway pledges his love for a woman who rescued him from the sirens of defeat, all to a restrained yet intense vocal that is the very definition of soul.
Everything about the intriguingly titled Sea of Noise — from the classy but never predictable production, to sharp playing, clever lyrics, memorable melodies and especially the dialed down arrangements — is an enormous step forward. Second releases are seldom so focused, poised and forward looking, but this shows that, with any luck, St. Paul and the Broken Bones will be around for many more.