About a year ago, I saw St. Paul and the Broken Bones perform at a tiny club in Tuscaloosa, Ala., called the Green Bar. The Birmingham band's six members squeezed onto the stage, looking like ragtag school kids. Singer Paul Janeway, nerd-tastic in spectacles and a Sunday suit, unfurled a handkerchief. He started to croon, then shout and wail.
The two horn players rang the blues; the rhythm section slipped into a hot pocket; the guitarist pulled out some nimble riffs. Janeway kept hitting notes that I'd only heard before from soulful elders like Bobby Bland. In 15 minutes, the crowd grew from a sparse dozen onlookers to a packed, throbbing organism. Women reached for Janeway. Men swooned. People just walking by paid the $5 cover and pushed to the front.
Since that winter weekday gig, I've watched as St. Paul and the Broken Bones became one of the nation's best live bands. Every crowd is bigger; nearly every listener locks in and becomes a raving fan. Now, the group is releasing a debut album that's an ideal counterpart to those frenetic shows. Produced by Ben Tanner, keyboardist for the Alabama Shakes, Half the City is the album you put on after the night's done, to chill out, make out or cry into that last drink you pour in the kitchen. It's also the one you reach for the morning after, because you just have to memorize those grooves.
Tanner has eradicated the canned mood that sinks much retro-soul by recording Half the City live to tape in as few takes as possible and mixing it for maximum rawness on the old board at Fame Studios. Slow cookers like "I'm Torn Up" and "Dixie Rothko" allow Janeway to fully flex his enormous tenor, while stompers like "Call Me" are humid with happiness. Soul scholars will chase the references from Memphis to Motown and back, but the feeling belongs to these six young men, right now.
St. Paul's origin story is common: White Southern kids chase the region's African-American musical spark, led by a singer with astounding lung capacity who came up in the church, as well as a guitarist who'd paid some dues (Browan Lollar once played in Jason Isbell's band) before blossoming into his own sound. But the little things make a difference. Janeway loves the soul legend O.V. Wright and dark patriarch Nick Cave and the overlooked gospel great Alex Bradford. Lollar fills his riffs with unexpected color, like the magical-realist painter he also is. The horn section has the energy of undergrads, which its members were until they graduated from Samford University last year.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones' music doesn't just mimic the sounds its members love; it regenerates the tradition. This is what happens when players are unusually in tune with each other and with the discoveries they're sharing. Half the City is the first major recorded statement from a band already growing into greatness. Get it now, while the sweat's still fresh.
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