The back cover of Howl pictures a young black man propped against the railing of a bridge. He’s clad in geek-chic Buddy Holly glasses and “vintage” French t-shirt for the “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” single. His hands are shoved deep into his pockets and his face is tinged with the overly-telegraphed melancholy of someone yearning for a level ennui that they’ve not yet actually earned. Behind him sits a bricked-up old factory whose graffiti proclaims loudly that “MEMORIES-ARE-SACRED”. The mishmash of elements are ideal iconographic frames for JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound’s third album. The mixture of old and new, black and white, hip and anachronistic have all been tensions long embedded in the band’s music. Having the whole thing framed by the idea of memory, loss and sadness captures the new album’s concerns with neatness that’s almost too perfect.
Since they first started making a name for themselves with 2009’s Beat of Our Own Drum, the Uptown Sound have proudly proclaimed themselves a “post-punk soul” band, which is obviously a difficult line to tread. Their second record, 2011’s Want More saw them underplaying their indie rock inclinations and instead paying homage to the early days of R&B by channeling everything from Ray Charles to Motown to ‘70s soul. Howl expands their sonic palette even farther while imposing a tighter lyrical focus, with songs mostly centered on the need for love despite the inevitable heartbreak it invites.
The title track effectively frames the record’s emotional thrust. “Howl” is a song about, in Brooks’ words, “giving love without reservation and having it be callously discarded by a capricious recipient”. That destruction of innocence is then explored throughout the rest of the record, as Brooks walks us through an album-long romantic coming-of-age story. The next song, “Married for a Week”, is the tale of a spurned lover being transformed from a doting husband to a man who “fools around with every stranger you know”. Elsewhere Brooks examines the calculus behind adult relationships noting bitterly, “you need security, I need assurances”. Howl is haunted by the tension between the undeniable power of love and the often selfish failings that drive people in relationships. It’s a truth Brooks knows all too well, declaring later in the record that, “I’m controlled by your love” before being forced to admit that, “your love is never enough” before driving the point home by repeating “it’s never, never, never, never, never, never, never gonna be enough”. Even the longtime live favorite, “River” (presented here in a far more ornate version than the one released as the b-side on the “I Got High” single) sees Brooks channeling Sam Cooke to convey the torment of unrequited love.
Sonically, Howl is clearly an attempt to underline the fact that, though they have the soul chops, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound is far more than a straightforward revival act. Although there’s still enough their stock-in-trade scratchy R&B sound to go around, the band, comprised of guitarist Billy Bungeroth, drummer Kevin Marks, keyboardist Andy Rosenstein, and bassist Ben Taylor is clearly eager to try their hand at (slightly) more contemporary sounds as well. There’s a heavy dose of new wavy ‘80s pop injected in the songs on this album, which allows Taylor’s bass parts in particular to shine as the group proves that its sound is rooted far more in rhythm and groove than in any particular era of music.
For example, the sizzling stoned guitar haze that surrounds “Control” is paired with an insistently danceable bassline that mark it as unmistakably soulful despite the many layers of Pavement and Fugazi also embedded in its DNA. The band even journeys into indie pop territory with “Not Alone”, a slice of anthemic Americana that would have fit in neatly on the last Decemberists record.
Howl closes with “These Things”, a fitting counterpoint its opening track. An ode to hard-earned wisdom, “These Things” depicts the wounded resilience of a man who’s suffered through the heartbreak and mistreatment of the preceding ten songs and still managed to retain enough wizened hopefulness to keep going. After enduring over five hard-earned years as a touring band, it’s easy to read some commentary on the band itself into this message. Now three albums into their career, JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound have taken their lumps, paid their dues and emerged as a band rooted equally in the wisdom of the past and the optimism of the present.