Brother, can I get an “amen”? Amen! That’s the sentiment the listener gets after hearing Alabama based sextet St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Influenced by the church, specifically the black gospel tradition in addition to vintage soul, debut album Half the City is a legit soul LP in 2014. Soul and the year 2014 seem an unlikely pairing, particularly with the heavy reliance of electronic instruments and autotune, but the relationship proves to be one that’s “Simply Beautiful” as Al Green would put it. St. Paul (aka Paul Janeway) leads the charge of the soul-band, delivering truly amazing, gut-wrenching vocal performances. Unafraid to get “down and dirty” with it, Janeway’s Pentecostal influence coupled with a love for James Brown, translates nearly perfectly on Half the City.
Opener “I’m Torn Up” has authenticity written all over it – from its vintage-sounding production, thoughtful love-oriented songwriting, and St. Paul’s riled up, gritty lead vocals. The emotion of Janeway’s growl has that primitive, raucous nature similar to past soul and funk artists. Slow in tempo, and characterized by its grinding nature, St. Paul & the Broken Bones definitely set the tone for Half the City with “I’m Torn Up”. “Don’t Mean a Thing” proceeds soundly, kicking off with a sick instrumental introduction and continuing St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ nod to the ’70s. The memorable horn-driven section returns upon each refrain, underneath Janeway’s powerful, ad-libbing gospel-tinged lead. “Call Me” caps off the sweet opening trio, with an infectious energy, again driven by the jubilance and enthusiasm of the front man.
“Like a Mighty River” picks right up where things left off, with Janeway making the proclamation that the love is just that – “like a mighty river”. Oozing with considerable personality and further accentuated by a cooking band (particularly those horn riffs), describing the cut as fiery might be an understatement. Sure, there is an over-the-top element, but one literally can relate to the passion exhibited. The passion continues on the downer “That Glow” which opens with a dark, edgy guitar riff supporting the sentiment. Depressingly arranged horns contribute to the moodiness, with Janeway confirming the heartbreak on lyrics such as “I lost my senses / For that child that went away / I carried all my sorrow / To my resting place.” Amongst the moodiest cuts, “That Glow” may be glum, but alluringly so.
As notable as “That Glow” is, “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” is better, ranking among the albums’ best. Another impassioned grinder, St. Paul & the Broken Bones milk every ounce of emotion out of it. The lyricism is where the “bread is buttered” for the band here. “Broken bones and pocket change,” Janeway howls, “This heart is all she left with me.” Later on the bridge, Janeway further confesses and confirms how badly broken love has devastated him: “Music died and it let me go / Said goodbye to my poor soul / The melody, why have you forsaken me.” If Janeway was at his breaking point on “Broken Bones and Pocket Change”, he’s insistent that “[she’s] got to love me” on the up tempo “Sugar Dyed”, a stark contrast. A kick up in tempo also helps to eliminate any lingering depression on the brief, but superb joint.
Title track “Half the City” keeps the funk rolling right along in all its pleasantness, despite falling short of the “glory” of top echelon cuts. Still, hard to deny the foot tapping and head-nodding incited. If nothing more, the guitar work stands out. “Grass Is Greener” seems to warrant an amen giving its bluesy, rousing nature, another allusion to Janeway’s church background. Even as St. Paul make mention “we put on our Sunday’s best”, he isn’t referencing praise to God, but rather begs and pleads with his lover “the grass ain’t greener”, even as she ditches him. He knows “we’ll never be married.” Following another solid track in “Let It Be So”, “Dixie Rothko” exhibits a positive outlook narratively, despite the wrongs within the relationship. Ultimately, Janeway sings it best: “I know we gonna make it”. “It’s Midnight” closes the album confessional style with Janeway admitting to this sins: “I’ve been bad, I’ve been bad, I’ve been bad!”
Ultimately, Half the City is a captivating, exceptional soul album. In a day and age where authenticity is questioned, St. Paul and the Broken Bones smash any doubts. Half the City is not an innovative affair, but given its retro-tinge, it doesn’t need to be. By all means, the goal of keeping “soul” alive and flourishing is easily accomplished here.