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The Rise of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (YHT)

03 Dec 2012

written by You Hear This

The Rise of St. Paul and the Broken Bones (YHT)

Hootin’, Hollerin’ and Hullabalooin’: The Rise of St. Paul and the Broken Bones

by Jennifer Freehling
Originally posted on You Hear This

 

A couple of months ago I posted a short entry about a band you’re going to start hearing a lot more about in the coming months (if you haven’t already)— St. Paul and the Broken Bones, a blue eyed Southern soul band on the upswing, based out of Birmingham, Alabama. Now, with a solid lineup, an EP, and a short tour coming in December, they’re starting to gain momentum.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones is the product of a collaboration between Paul Janeway and Jesse Phillips (also of Birmingham band The Grenadines), who have been working musically together on and off for several years and through various incarnations. Like many in the Deep South, lead singer Janeway grew up singing in church and flirted with the idea of one day becoming a preacher. However, as their bio reveals, “the cloth didn’t appreciate young Paul’s affinity for dirty jokes, Prince, and Tom Waits, and he was inclined to search elsewhere for co-conspirators.” (As a side note, the band often covers the Waits’ tune “Make It Rain”).

Subsequently, Paul’s background factors heavily into to his live performance — that of a worked up tent revival preacher, hootin’, hollerin’, and hullabalooin’, like he is working hard to save the soul of everyone that is present, including his own, and occasionally injuring himself in the process. Canadian born Phillips, on the other hand, arrived in Birmingham after an extended stint in New Orleans where he studied music and played in various bands.

Janeway and Phillips

Jesse met Paul through mutual friends, and eventually Jesse joined Paul’s band The Secret Dangers, a band which met with some mild success, but fizzled out with the departure of their guitar player, among other things. The duo occasionally performed around town under different monikers – such as “Hot Mess” and “Fuzzbugs”, but for the most part ceased to consistently work on music together.

Fuzzbugs

That all changed when Les Nuby of Ol Elegante studios approached Janeway and Phillips about working on some recordings. “Les Nuby is part of the reason I started singing in a band again,” says Janeway. “I wasn’t singing in any band. Les approached me and Jesse about coming in the studio and recording some music. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we really needed that push to figure it out. Les laid a fertile foundation for us in the studio, and what we have now is due to his magic ways. A lot of great music is coming out of that studio and I think we are honored to have been a part of that.”

In the studio, Nuby and James Brangle (of Birmingham band Through The Sparks) added additional instrumentation and laid down the initial tracks to supplement what Janeway and Phillips were working on, and eventually other musicians trickled in and sat in for various other parts of the EP. What they were creating in the studio got around town by word of mouth, resulting in their appearance on the cover of local Birmingham monthly magazine B-Metro before they even played a live show and a booking on one of the main stages at Secret Stages for their first show.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones EP cover

The result of these sessions resulted in the 4 song demo/limited pressing EP that was recently released, entitled Greetings From St. Paul and the Broken Bones. The EP was mixed in Muscle Shoals, Alabama by engineer/musician Ben Tanner (of the Alabama Shakes, Belle Adair). The currently available EP is unmastered, but they sent a copy up to New York where it is being mastered now by Steve Berson of Total Sonic Media, who has worked with acts ranging from the Foo Fighters, Kayne West, and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.

You can sample the first track of the St Paul and the Broken Bones album at their Bandcamp page. Entitled “Sugar Dyed Honey Pants”, the title a reference to and acknowledgement of the moments in the album where they have leaned on predecessors such as the Four Tops and the Temptations in their songwriting process.

The second track on the EP is the real gem on the album, a song called “Broken Bones and Pocket Change” (see video below). It’s a slower doo-wop song that utilizes some of the more angelic aspects of Paul’s voice while still allowing him to break into his more frenetic vocal stylings. This song’s success is apparent in their live performances, where the audience seems to actually pay attention and get mesmerized by the song rather than talking over it or leaving as concert goers tend to do on a slower song.

It’s followed up by the third track on the EP, the trudging, body swaying, dirge-like “That Glow”, sounding like a resigned prayer that eventually reaches levels of pleading and desperation before it ends, almost unexpectedly yet successfully, like the song reached the apex of what it was wearily trying to communicate before it just gives up.

The fourth and final track on the album entitled “Champagne Halloween” is their weakest, but coincidentally might be the one that is most appealing to a widespread audience. It sounds like it would be perfect background music for a truck commercial (preferably starring local Alabama hero Nick Saban, if Alabama fan Janeway had his way). The song wanders away from the mainly soul-based set and ventures more into classic rock territory that’s been driven through before, reminiscent of AC/DC, Jet, and the now forever truck associated song “Rock and Roll” by Led Zeppelin.

In their new material, the moments that are a little too derivative in the music they’ve produced so far seem to be working their way out, and the band is inching further into their own niche and evolutionary interpretation, which will eventually help to further separate themselves from the soul revival fray. The horns are taking a more active role in the songwriting process, rather than being added as an afterthought, and they’re starting to settle and get comfortable in their current, more permanent lineup.

After several shows with various backing musicians, they added musicians Andrew Lee (formerly of the Onehundreds) on drums and Browan Lollar (Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, The Pollies, and Azure Ray) on guitar. “With the other guys, I have felt like we have gotten really lucky” explains Janeway when I mention the new, more permanent members of the band. “Jesse invited Browan to come down to the studio one night to see if he would be interested in laying down some guitar tracks, and by some miracle Browan liked what he heard. He fit right in and I don’t think the band works without him. He brings great songcraft skills that I think the full length record will benefit from. As far as Andrew goes, to me he is Birmingham’s best kept secret. Jesse called him one night on his way to the studio and Andrew was there 15 minutes later putting down awesome beats to songs he has never heard. Andrew really blows my mind sometimes with how perfect he fits what we do.” Phillips, who has done most of the arranging of the songs, states “Browan and Andrew have both been big boosts in the writing and arranging department, because they both possess vast reservoirs of musical vocabulary to draw upon”.

One of the strongest parts of the band is the recently added horn section, which consists of Samford University music students Ben Griner and Allan Branstetter on trombone and trumpet, respectively. After recently seeing several bands with lackluster horn sections that seem to get by on nostalgic novelty more than anything else, the punchiness and strength of musicianship of these two offer is refreshing, and adds very positive depth and dimension to the band. Also, they just have a really good time on stage.

“Ben and Allen really are what make the band special to me,” says Janeway. “They do such a great job on the horns and are just so enthusiastic about what they do.” Jamie Harper (of Handwritten Letters) joined them on baritone saxophone at their last show and added even more dynamics and fatness to the horn section. Hopefully his appearance and contribution at that gig is a sign that he will be playing many more with them.

When asked if they were going to pursue either the Southern soul or classic rock sounds found on the EP, Phillips replied “I think we’re sort of naturally headed [towards the soul side], leaning heavier on grooves and horns. But, the rock element will always be present because of who we are and our backgrounds.”

When asked what they’ve been listening to recently and how that may influence the direction that the band is taking, Phillips responded “I love the new Lee Fields and Tame Impala albums, but I’ve been digging a little harder into some of the subtleties of what we do: the Memphis sound, old Stax and Volt stuff that’s horn-driven, things like that. But also, I find myself Shazaming a bunch of old weird pop songs on the radio in my car because I like the way the bridge moves, or a key change, or a turnaround”.

As for Janeway, he states “I have been listening to Thomas East of the True Soul label out of Arkansas. He is just an awesome singer. I have also been trying to dig up a ton of Blaxploitation movie soundtracks. Roy Ayers “Coffy” and Willie Hutch “The Mack” are two soundtracks I have been listening to pretty extensively. ”

St. Paul and the Broken Bones aren’t content to rest on their recent success, either. They are continuously working on new material, including a song titled “The Grass is Greener” (see video below). It illustrates the more confident, cohesive direction they’re heading as a band. The song mixes all the elements of the Southern soul gumbo; the energetic front man pouring his heart on the stage, the punchy horn section, the raunchy, yet doo-woppy guitar, the nod to gospel and blues (and even a lovely bit of surprise jazz, in this case), and a strong rhythm section. I’m so excited about the new songs this band is producing, and look forward to seeing where they go. When asked about what they’re going to work on next, Phillips mentioned that “We’re going to do the full-length at the NuttHouse Studio in Sheffield with Ben Tanner producing. It’s more than likely going to be the debut release on a new label, Single Lock Recordings, that he’s just started.”

St. Paul and the Broken Bones December 2012 Tour Poster

Recently, St. Paul and the Broken Bones have drawn accolades from outside the state of Alabama; most notably the band just got props from NPR’s music critic Ann Powers. Inevitability, as they get more exposure, they’ll continuously draw comparisons with fellow Alabama throwback soul band the Alabama Shakes.

“I think we all agree that there are obvious similarities: soulful singers, being from Alabama, a fondness for vintage sounds and textures — but they’re a rock band,” clarifies Phillips. “We’re a soul band. They’re obviously very talented and have accomplished a lot in a short period of time, so any kind of comparison is flattering. It’s gonna happen, and we’re thankful that they’ve helped focus the public’s attention on both the region and “authentic” music, which a lot of folks around here have been making in relative obscurity for years”.

The only comparison I’ll make here is this, and reiterate what I wrote about the Alabama Shakes almost a year and a half ago and say: do yourself a favor and catch one of their upcoming shows at Bottletree listed below, because inevitably they’ll be selling out shows in the future and you can get the “I saw them before they were big” badge of honor. You don’t get to see this kind of music too often.

As a bonus for getting to the end of the post, have a listen to the unreleased St. Paul and the Broken Bones demo on You Hear This.

 

 

Upcoming St. Paul and the Broken Bones shows:

BottletreeFishergreen / St. Paul & The Broken Bones / Mopbucket — Wednesday, December 12, 9:00 p.m.

BottletreeDownright Christmas Show — Saturday, December 22, 9:00 p.m.

About Jennifer Freehling

Jennifer Freehling is a contributing writer for You Hear This. A former DJ at New Orleans radio station WTUL, she currently plays with the all-girl local band Paperdolls and DJs as “DJ Jezebelle” .

 


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