PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

'Young Sick Camellia' Shows St. Paul & The Broken Bones at the Height of Their Powers

Photo: McNair Evans / Courtesy of All Eyes Media

Buoyed by the remarkable soul vocals of frontman Paul "St. Paul" Janeway, Young Sick Camellia is a record steeped in tradition that still defies easy categorization.

Young Sick Camellia
St. Paul & The Broken Bones


7 September 2018

St. Paul & The Broken Bones have often been pigeonholed as a retro-soul act. It's a fate that has befallen many of their contemporaries, each of whom have, in their own way, taken tropes from Motown and Stax and carried them into the era of viral dance challenges, social media stunts, and tabloid-grabbing bravado. These artists -- the Dip, Alabama Shakes, and Mayer Hawthorne, to name just a few examples -- have either embraced or distanced themselves from the "retro-soul" label, knowing that, for better or worse, it's career-defining.

On Young Sick Camellia, their third full-length together, Paul "St. Paul" Janeway and his bandmates show just how misleading and deleterious this label can be. Brimming with old-school stylings and sweat-soaked funk backdrops that sound like the Famous Flames simply reassembled around a new frontman, these songs all stem from a singular ability to express oneself through a decades-old tradition. Simply calling this work "retro-soul" would be a careless critical maneuver that would miss how truly remarkable this ability is.

Listen to "Apollo", Camellia's lead single, and you can hear this preternatural commitment to tradition in just two words. "Lookin' down from my orbit / Captain, can you get her to call me?" Janeway sings, his voice still the powerhouse wail that put his band on the map, that drew comparisons to blues legend Bobby Bland and that filled reviews of the group's live performances with rapturous adjectives like "electrifying", "breathtaking", and "transcendent". He throws these final words -- "call me" -- into a higher register, stretching them out until it seems like he's hesitant to release them into the open air. But then he does, and they echo out into the pitch-black space around him.

It's impossible to hear these words as anything but an oblique reference to the band's breakthrough single "Call Me", a stunning showcase for Janeway's lungs that sounds like a forgotten '60s classic. And it's impossible to hear "Call Me" without hearing the song that inspired it: raw-soul shouter Wilson Pickett's "634-5789" from 1966's aptly-titled The Exciting Wilson Pickett. "All you have to do is pick up your telephone / And dial my number," Pickett sings, a nameless girl group rattling off this number behind him, turning it into an incantation, something far greater than just a set of digits that could be scrawled onto a piece of paper.

In Janeway's words, you can also hear the title track from Al Green's 1973 masterpiece Call Me. More than this, you can hear the light of the late Aretha Franklin and the first chords of her own "Call Me", a song so rich and expansive in scope, so arresting in the way that it stages the agony of not being called, that it's highly unlikely that soul devotees like the Broken Bones would not have heard it. "Call me": it's an injunction that spans across the history of soul, and the image it conjures -- a lonely figure trembling by a phone in a dark room -- is emblematic of the genre as a whole.

All of this history is in "Apollo", both in Janeway's lyrics and the way he sings them. It's the band's ability to tap into this history, to pay tribute to it without sounding merely like throwback artists, that makes Young Sick Camellia a notable record. "LivWithOutU" takes the most basic ingredients of soul -- piano pulses, horn flourishes, bass bounces -- and transmutes them into a high drama where lost love means the loss of life. "Can you feel it now? / On the underground / With that digital light," Janeway sings, the horn section shattering pane after pane of stained glass around him. Meanwhile, tracks like "Convex" and "GotItBad" are irresistibly groove-based. They're tactile; you can feel them in your bones.

Young Sick Camellia is much more than just a work of historical fiction though. With the help of hip-hop producer Jack Splash, who has worked with modern-day trendsetters like Solange, Kendrick Lamar, and Diplo, the band avoids retreading the same ground they covered on 2014's Half the City and, their sophomore record, 2016's Sea of Noise. This is never more apparent than on the eclectic R&B of "Mr. Invisible". Replete with ambient effects and rhythmic tics that wouldn't sound out of place on a Gold Panda record, it immediately stands out as something new. However, as soon as Janeway opens his mouth, you're reminded where you are, and this is to the band's credit.

While the ballads here ("Hurricanes" and "Bruised Fruit") offer little more than vocal histrionics, they're still immaculately crafted and performed. The fact that these missteps are still compelling is clear proof that Young Sick Camellia is by a band at the height of their powers. These powers may be lifted from a tradition that predates them by more than half a century, but that shouldn't be a reason to cast them aside as a mere novelty. It should be a reason to admire them more.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.