To listen to the brass-infused music of St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ exceptional debut album Half The City is to step back in time to the days of swing, big band, and the height of Motown. So why is this Birmingham, Alabama band being featured in a classic rock blog? Because the roots of classic rock are all in there, blended together in a powerfully unique sound.
First and foremost, there's soul and blues, and, more specifically, Otis Redding and Al Green. Like those eminences, the band’s singer, Paul Janeway, imbues songs about the mundane with the aura of God’s word, as his vocal range riffs between church-mouse softness and James Brown shrieking. In “I’m Torn Up,” he asks a former lover, “Is he standing there/Please tell him this is your song,” but the line feels less a request than a prayer for healing and forgiveness.
And while the two-man brass section drives the music, there's a clear rock sensibility in Browan Lollar’s guitar parts. You get the sense he's biding his time until he can go Eddie Van Halen on the rest of the band. That never actually happens (probably a good thing), but you get glimmers of the possibility on tracks like “Dixie Rothko” (the outro solo) and the band’s exceptional live cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It,” below.
And finally, it doesn’t hurt that the record was produced in Muscle Shoals by Alabama Shakes’ keyboardist, Ben Tanner. Many of the tracks, in particular, “Like A Mighty River,” showcase a funky groove indicative of the “Muscle Shoals sound.”
Half The City is an exceptional record that bridges many different sounds. But it's Janeway’s vocals that catapault the music into the realm of the spiritual. Listening to Janeway sing makes this Jewish kid from New York City want to go to church and pray – for more music from this band.