Artist: St. Paul & the Broken Bones
Album: Sea of Noise
Release Date: 09/09/2016
Sophomore albums bring their challenges especially when a band has a highly acclaimed debut, like 2013’s Half the City. We all know about the sophomore jinx, which often has bands pondering whether to use a conservatively similar approach so that they leverage success or whether they should risk a major change, thereby illuminating the wider scope of the band’s talents. Alabama Shakes comes to mind. Their second album sounds very different than their debut. Add St. Paul & The Broken Bones to the ‘change’ column. This is a band that took critics and audiences by storm with their eviscerating live shows and old school Otis Redding inspired approach. Refusing the easier path, charismatic lead singer Paul Janeway and his bandmates explore new sounds, textures and instrumentation here, searching for an elusive place where music can be fun and danceable while remaining intelligent and socially conscious.
You sense that right away from the opening track “Crumbling Light Post, Pt. 1,” a theme which appears again in two successive parts, rendered by Jason Clark and the Tennessee Mass Choir recorded at Memphis’ Stax Museum. Janeway comments on this track and the album as a whole saying, “Sea of Noise is not quite a full-blown concept record. It is focused in terms of subject matter – finding redemption and salvation and hope. ‘Crumbling Light Post’ comes from an old Winston Churchill quote, in which he said England was a crumbling lighthouse in a sea of darkness. I always thought that was a really interesting concept – that we’re falling anyway. In this day and age, it is the noise that has defined so many things. We’re going to fall to it eventually, but for now we feel like our heads are above water. It felt anthemic.”
Given Janeway’s wife’s masters in literature, he wanted to be proud of the lyrics, looking to writers like Tom Waits and Nick Cave for inspiration. He also expanded the band to eight pieces, adding another reed player and trombonist. The horn-driven sound is augmented by a string quartet and the aforementioned vocal choir. In fact, some tracks have no horn parts at all. Strings were arranged by Lester Snell, Stax veteran behind Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, and many others. There are both hopeful and dark tones to the record. Of particular note are “All I Ever Wonder,” which challenges apathy, “I’ll Be Your Woman” which redefines gender roles, and the disc’s centerpiece “Burning Rome,” where Janeway is at his soulful best. He dubs the latter “a letter to God if I could write it.” “Is It Me” has a gospel feel that segues into the third part of “Crumbling Light Post”.
Given the care that went into this record, you can expect their live shows to be expansive, and perhaps even insightful; and undoubtedly moving, both figuratively and physically.
– Jim Hynes