Close your eyes, and there’s no way you picture this guy singing these songs. The guy with the glasses, the suit, the flushed cheeks. Close your eyes, and Otis Redding — absolutely peeling the paint off of some chitlin-circuit dive — comes to mind. James Brown, wearing a hole in a stage with his high-heel boots. Al Green, reaching past satellites to find just the right note. Not an ex-bank teller named Paul Janeway.
But that’s just who is at the switch of this hurtling R&B train. And he’s surrounded not by some grizzled gaggle of Stax or Hi Records vets, but by a group of similarly committed kids. Together as St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to put it as simply as possible, they blow their ever-loving asses off on Half the City, due February 18, 2014 via Single Lock/Thirty Tigers.
So, don’t look. Don’t judge. Put away the racial stereotypes, the age-ism, the hipster circumspection. Close your eyes, and don’t try to picture anything. Not Otis, not the Rev. Green. St. Paul and the Broken Bones aren’t taking you back to Memphis, anyway. They’re blending an age-old sound, and an even older feeling, with their own unique perspective — and making something that sounds instantly both timeless and brand new. And they’re doing it from Birmingham, via Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Ultimately, the question isn’t whether Half the City is turning over new ground, but whether it’s playing for keeps, without the kind of winking irony that would ruin everything. It’s whether St. Paul and the Broken Bones are trodding confidently between the footsteps of those previous legends, with raw excitement and sex and humor and baffling heartbreak — with a sense of magical passion toward what came before but without the tiresome fealty that makes things feel shrink wrapped in time. And, God bless ’em, that’s precisely what this is.