For all their efforts to expand their 8-piece band’s sound to include psychedelia and hip-hop rhythms, and as wide ranging as their lyrical pursuits have been – whether exploring Greek mythology, space travel and astronomical phenomenon, or sci-fi fantasy – St. Paul and The Broken Bones has always been a funky, R&B revue at heart. It’s been 9 years since their debut album, but nothing defines Paul Janeway and his comrades at their best better than that 2014 single, “Call Me,” with that phone number call-out inspired by Wilson Pickett. Now on their fifth full-length release, St. Paul & Co. offer up their quietest, most intimate album yet, but on tracks like “City Federal Building,” “Sea Salt,” and “Wolf in Rabbit Clothes” you still hear that simmering funk and R&B underpinning that brought the band to the party.
Like most albums arriving after the global pandemic, Janeway has written his own quarantine love song, “Lonely Love Song,” sung over a gently played acoustic guitar. “Death ain’t what scares me,” he states, “it’s missing all that love that you give me,” before admitting there was some comfort in the world shutdown, “I wish we could be bored all the time.” But the singer with the remarkably high, tenor voice, has reported that the primary influence of the songs on Angels in Science Fiction, was learning about the birth of his daughter. In the album’s closing lullaby for “Marigold,” he expresses the separation anxiety that impacts many parents who travel to make a living: “I don’t want you to be alone, but I gotta go/I’ve got a show,” sung over a gently played piano with supportive strings. The 12-track album begins as it ends, a quietly sung ballad written to his future daughter, Janeway sings “I hope you get your mother’s eyes,” then seems to pray for angels to protect the child. The title track has a similar theme, as the former preacher Janeway confesses his questions about the presence of the divine, except that now, “I see (God) in your eyes,” and “Every prayer goes to you,” the gift of his daughter.
Musically, the entire project is delivered in more of an intimate, reflective mood. But here and there, the vibrant jazzy presence of Janeway’s Broken Bones bandmates rise to the surface. On the quieter song of praise for the “Magnolia Trees,” the band’s lush R&B soulfulness lifts the chorus up in tried-and-true fashion. And when the singer looks out on the world’s brokenness and “crumbling skyscrapers,” in “City Federal Building,” the rhythm section provides the sturdy drum beat and fine walking bassline that puts a skip in your step. Producer Matt Ross-Sprang and this able band take every opportunity to add a bit of sparkle and shine, with Browan Lollar on guitars, Al Gamble on keys, drummer Kevin Leon, bassist Jesse Phillips, and able horn section Allen Branstetter, Amari Ansari, and Chad Fisher adding what’s appropriate for the quieter, more gentle mood of this outing.
As a fan of St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ live show, I’m drawn to the songs that hint of the soulful, funky side of the band, a shout here and there in “Oporto-Madrid Blvd,” the hint of funk in “Sea Star,” the sultry bass line of “Wolf in Rabbit Clothes” that sends Janeway into the stratosphere of his falsetto with the jazzy piano pushing the tempo. But for all that, Angels In Science Fiction is designed to be a more reflective record, centered around Janeway’s meditation on the new life arising from the ashes represented in the birth of his daughter.
Brian Q. Newcomb
For more of Brian Q. Newcomb’s music reviews, check out The Fire Note
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