St. Paul & the Broken Bones (A Music Review)

Music fans have known for some time now that something special is brewing in Alabama.  In 2012, we were introduced to Brittany Howard when Alabama Shakes released their debut album Boys & Girls.  Up until now, it seemed that the sheer raw power heard in Brittany Howard’s vocals, teamed with her Rock & Blues riffs on guitar, were unrivaled.  But now, a new challenger has entered the ring to vie for the title of Alabama’s best belter.  His name is Paul Janeway and the band is called St. Paul & the Broken Bones.

Half the City, St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ debut album, is a lyrical scrapbook filled with pictures of lovers, cut up with scissors and taped back together. In it there are memories of past relationships that could not be forgotten.  Page after page, song after song, the pain caused by the love that could not be saved is displayed for anyone curious enough to know the story.  And whether or not the apostle Paul of the Bible is the intended namesake, Paul Janeway on Half the City proclaims himself as the undisputed apostle of the resurgent gospel of Soul music.  Janeway’s howling and screaming in songs like Dixie Rothko and Broken Bones & Pocket Change last longer than the apostle Paul’s all night sermons.  You know, like the one that caused Eutychus to fall asleep and fall to his death from off a windowsill in the book of Acts?  The apostle Paul made it up to him by promptly resurrecting Eutychus.  Talk about broken bones!  Or maybe it’s the broken bones the apostle Paul suffered from all of those beatings at the hands of Roman persecution.  Could it be that Janeway is recalling the pain of bad break-ups through the imagery of Nero, the Coliseum and imprisonment?  Broken bones!

If Janeway’s bones are in danger of being broken, he has himself to blame on songs like the slow winding, droning I’m Torn Up where he asks his sweetheart,

Is he standing right next to you,
Listening to this sweet song?
Could you please tell him,
That you did him wrong?

Yep, the proverbial “thorn in the side” of Paul in this case is a woman-a woman who belongs to another man. This adulterous affair continues on the dangerously sentimental Let It Be So where he sings,

I will love you until the end of time,
But our love ain’t right,
Please old lady let me lay with you,
I know he ain’t here tonight.

And it’s gonna take more than a blinding light from Jesus to stop this sin evident by Janeway’s confession that,

We can’t stop what the Lord has made,
Though the devil may try,
I ain’t holy, but I’m whole with you…

Things pick up a bit tempo-wise, but not for long, on the carrousel like Don’t Mean a Thing. The horns rise and fall lead by Allen Branstetter on trumpet and Ben Griner on trombone. Like horses on a merry-go-round, the beat goes up and down, it speeds up and then slows down, and Janeway finds himself like a knight sworn to protect the king, upon his steed, riding helplessly in circles as he watches his “kingdom fall” to yet another failed relationship.  If it’s any comfort, though his castle of love is destroyed, the bridge helped constructed by Andrew Lee on drums, Jesse Philips on bass, Al Gamble on organ, and Browan Lollar on guitar can provide safe passage for he and his horse to return-but “not until the morning sun.”  Andrew Lee’s drumming on the vamp that transitions Don’t Mean a Thing out into a sustained sigh and final exhale is especially noteworthy.

Only the phrase “sweet misery” can describe the self inflicted torture that Janeway expresses in the Rock and rolling Like a Mighty River. Or perhaps masochism is a better fit.  He wrestles with his spirituality as he assesses his relationship with his lover, weeping:

She is just a pure girl,
And I am just a dirty boy,
And we’re just tryin’ to work it through.
But there ain’t no words that cut me,
Like the ones she use.

And then further examines his soul when on Grass is Greener he notes:

We put on our Sunday best,
We live our quiet mess,
But we’ll never be married.

Janeway succumbs to desperation in Call Me, a mid tempo groove with rhythm guitar reminiscent of Isaac Hayes’ Soul Man, performed by Sam & Dave, and played by Steve Cropper of Booker T. & the M.G.’s.  Janeway pleads:

You got your limit,
Baby I’ve got mine,
611-3369,
You got to call me baby.

All is lost on the lamentably Broken Bones & Pocket Change.  In this melodic ode which blurs the lines between a woman and music, Janeway waxes poetic:

Broken bones and pocket change,
This heart is all she left me with,
I got it bad, baby,
I got it oh so bad this poor disease,
And I’m down, oh I’m down,
On my knees,
Music died and let me go,
Said goodbye to my poor soul,
Melody, Melody, Melody,
Why have you forsaken, forsaken me?

Janeway can’t close the show without keeping true to form in the personage of St. Paul. Despite the dark cloud from under which he finds himself in throughout Half the City, he reaffirms his faith in the redemptive power of God on the spiritual It’s Midnight.  If it weren’t for the saloon style piano playing in the background, you might think it was sung in a church. Be that as it may, whisky rather than wine is more appropriate at the close of this album – as are quiet, lonely nights and sliding patio doors.  So open your door halfway and let the gentle breeze soothe your soul as you spin this CD over and over again.  The music gets better each time it‘s replayed.  Don’t skip around from track to track.  Just as you would a favorite book, read it from beginning to end, cover to cover.  Listen to it in its element, like a story being told, with every detail included.  Don’t miss a thing!

© 2014

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