Ural Thomas and the Pain Offer Their Own Version of the Soul Revival with 'The Right Time'
The Right Time, technically the debut from Ural Thomas and the Pain, shows a soul star happily still at his peak even as he nears 80.
The Right Time
Ural Thomas and the Pain
Tender Loving Empire
28 September 2018
The soul revival of the last decade or two has brought the blessing of exciting new sounds from a once nearly dormant genre. That the movement has been driven by older artists getting a fresh start has made it all the more appealing. When singers like Sharon Jones or Charles Bradley appeared to come out of nowhere late in life, their stellar music raised questions about why we'd never heard them until so late. The latest entry into that scene, such as it is, Ural Thomas has a now-obvious biography: a few singles 50 years ago, decades of silence, a surprisingly good record. The Right Time, technically the debut from Ural Thomas and the Pain, offers a less obvious breadth of sound, showing a star happily still at his peak even as he nears 80.
The drums and the James Brown-y horn hits that open the album suggest Thomas is a certain kind of performer. He's got a little funk to him and a willingness to get deep into the groove, all in line with his biggest single from the past, 1967's "Can You Dig It?" New cut "Slow Down" might be about Thomas's experience of how fast things move, but he doesn't sound like someone interested in pacing himself, no matter what he sings. When he shouts "Money...money...money! / Time...time...time..." and moves onto other happy topics before finally breaking into a shrieking, it sounds like force of a pent-up soul career letting loose.
But Thomas moves from there into "No Distance (Between You & Me)", a track more grounded in Motown (though lacking the sort of bass playing the Funk Brothers would have ridden), touching on the sensibilities of a group like the Temptations. Just two tracks in, and it's hard to figure if Thomas comes from a harder funk tradition like Brown or a smoother pop place, somewhere more like Smokey Robinson. As the album progresses, it becomes clear that Thomas has no intention of being pigeonholed, moving from those sounds more toward later Stax, earlier doo-wop, and whatever else suits him. Likewise, while it's fair to put him with other late-noticed soul singers, he wouldn't be an easy fit on Daptone.
The doo-wop influences make for some of the most striking moments on The Right Time, not least because they reveal an artist willing to reach into every corner of his toolkit. On "Smoldering Fire", Thomas uses his falsetto to good effect, revealing his range. His tone on this track might not be as clear as it could be (making for the rare wondering what a younger Thomas might have done), but his phrasing and expressiveness more than make up for it. Of course, right after that cut, Thomas moves into the more rocking title track, closer to James Brown territory.
That versatility makes Ural Thomas and the Pain hard to pin down. Thomas could have been a crooner, a funk singer, a smooth R&B artist. He could have bounced between Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. Instead he disappeared for decades. Fortunately, his reemergence shows roots across the R&B spectrum, but isn't indebted to any of them. Instead of a throwback to a given line, we get simply Ural Thomas in the present, something that's easy to dig.