When St. Paul and the Broken Bones dropped their 2014 debut LP Half the City on the public, so much fertile promise was revealed. The Ben Tanner-produced effort was far from perfect, mostly a canon of soul-infused garage jams still in need of sharpening, but it served as a proper introduction to the Southern soul revival band with a keen intellect of unbridled Otis Redding soul power. Heck, the disc,along with the group's rapturous live show, was good enough to make them the opening act on a few stops for the Rolling Stones' Zip Code tour.Two years later, and now with a renewed sense of self and profound innovation, the Birmingham, Ala. band shows off Sea of Noise, a record burning with sturdier tracks and plentiful homages to Memphis soul.
To make this happen, the blue-eyed soul band led by Paul Janeway journeys to the campgrounds of Nashville (Sound Emporium) and Soulsville USA seeking inspiration. And almost instantly their sound gets a splash of uniqueness. A rapturous Sunday morning ensemble, Jason Clark's Tennessee Mass Choir, hovers in the background of the opening prelude and on the moving "Waves," a smart companion to Janeway's revival time ad-libs. Isaac Hayes' longtime string arranger Lester Snell pours his "hot buttered soul" when appropriately summoned. And the in-house songwriting is superbly tightened, almost to the level of Alabama Shakes' incredible sophomore LP Sound & Color. Thanks to all these advancements and to the newly recruited production of Paul Butler, who brought Shawn Lee's 2009 album Soul in the Hole to life, Janeway and his Broken Bones have found their Sermon on the Mount.
Almost every track assembled plays like golden lessons of righteous soul being meticulously articulated to a new generation of nostalgia-hungry buffs. "Midnight on Earth" is swept up by a gust of Sly Stone psychedelic funk. "Brain Matter" feels like a glorious mesh of Arcade Fire rock and Holland-Dozier-Holland Motown gold. And "Burning Rome" is simply Otis, bridled with Stax-esque horns and flaring gospel movements. The heftiest of the ballads, "I'll Be Your Woman," even with its peculiar gender use akin to Prince's "If I Were Your Girlfriend," struts like lost Al Green treasure from the Hi era while gliding on the wings of Snell's symphonic add-ons.
There are plenty more goodies from which to pick on the band's sophomore set, but one track stands superior to them all: "Flow With It (You Got Me Feeling Like)" — an intoxicating brew of Bobby Womack soul and Stax-inspired horns — snuggles up to the best of grown folks' '70's soul while exporting a sing-a-long chorus for the big win. It's quite easily their best assembled ready-for-radio single to date...that is, if the label will give it the green light. 2014's "Call Me" was good, but this is pitch perfect.
Like their state peers Alabama Shakes, St. Paul and the Broken Bones have improved their template on their second time around. With barely a dry cut in the mix, Sea of Noise comes off sounding pristine. It's an atmospheric soul album with far more range and depth than their debut album. Those that sleep on this now will truly regret it later in life, when it possibly will stand out as one of the better R&B albums released in the early 21st century. Highly recommended