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St. Paul & the Broken Bones: Half the City (Album Review)

With a charismatic, dynamic, and theatrical lead singer who seems to channel the intensity of James Brown on-stage, a loose and punchy two-man horn section, and a garage band back line that holds everything down, Birmingham, Alabama’s St. Paul & the Broken Bones at their best capture a retro-soul sound that echoes nothing so much as the classic Stax and Muscle Shoals sides from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Lead vocalist Paul Janeway’s gospel-inflected soul singing is impassioned to say the least, and he wrings every ounce of sweat and soul out of the tracks included on this, the band’s debut full-length album. From the opener, “I’m Torn Up,” the stage is set for track after track of slow-burning and heart-wrenching soul ballads, a form that is obviously Janeway’s specialty. He croons, and roars, and gasps, and groans, and slides through these songs like the second coming of Al Green, somehow smooth and rough and raw all at the same time, pure emotion tempered with a dose of gospel spark, and there’s no denying this is his show. The band’s churchy, street-corner horn band sound is punchy enough to give Janeway all the heat and steam he needs, but also in-check enough not to crowd him, and songs like “Call Me,” “Broken Bones & Pocket Change,” the stomping “Sugar Dyed,” and the charming little soul waltz “It’s Midnight,” which closes things out, really do sound like they come from another era when secular gospel was just becoming known as soul. It’s a refreshing sound, even though it does nothing new. If there’s a flaw to this fine debut album, it’s that most of the songs are slow-moving, wrenching ballads, powerful if taken one by one, and Janeway wrings everything out of them, but they tend to fall into the same emotional groove. A couple more “who cares, let’s dance”-type upbeat songs might have made this a smoother and more varied listen, but that’s really a quibble, since voices like Janeway’s only come around once in a great while. This debut album is pretty good, and this band shows a lot of heart. With a singer like Janeway, there’s no reason to think that things won’t just get bigger and better for this band.