Modern Soul crew St. Paul & the Broken Bones explore modern Southern identity on their sophomore album

'Sea of Noise' offers listeners a rich experience complete with topical themes and nuanced, ambitious song textures.

click to enlarge On "Sea of Noise," St. Paul & the Broken Bones expand beyond their debut’s vintage R&B vibe. - Photo: David McClister
Photo: David McClister
On "Sea of Noise," St. Paul & the Broken Bones expand beyond their debut’s vintage R&B vibe.
Winston Churchill, the old “British bulldog” and statesman, inspired many a politician as well as the British public at large during WWII. However, you might not expect the former British Prime Minister’s posthumous influence to currently motivate a fledgling Soul band in small-town Alabama in America’s Deep South and help shape its new record. But you would be mistaken.

Relaxing at home in Birmingham, Ala. after a European tour, lead singer Paul Janeway spins anecdotes about his band, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, the musicians’ varied influences and their slow-molten burn of a second album, Sea of Noise, during a recent phone interview.

With the surprising success of St. Paul & the Broken Bones’ 2014 debut record, Half the City, the eight-piece, neo-Soul/Rock outfit has toured exhaustively and perfected its blazing blend of Janeway’s exuberant frontman combustion and the Bones’ pulsing rhythm-and-horns support. If Janeway looks more like a mild-mannered, bespectacled accountant than a Soul singer, it doesn’t take long in concert to be moved by his over-the-top, delirious antics and voice. “Unhinged” is the word he uses to describe his stage persona, and it fits.

It’s no coincidence that Janeway grew up wanting to be a fire and brimstone preacher — until Rock & Roll saved him (or damned him, take your pick).

“As a kid, as a teenager — I mean, it’s not like I lived in New York City,” Janeway says. “I didn’t have access to listen to The Smiths, for instance, you know? I grew up in small-town Alabama — there wasn’t a record store, there was no place to buy music, but there was a Christian bookstore and that was it. I didn’t know any better.”

In fact, his first exposure to Rock music occurred at age 19 when he bought U2’s Joshua Tree. But Soul music was different. 

“When I was a kid I could listen to that, it was the one kind of secular music I could,” Janeway says. “So I was aware of Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Al Green. But I was not familiar with let’s say, Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ which was too on the edge.”

Sophomore records have often been the pressured bane of many a young band. Achieving that initial success often leads to stumbling over what comes next or trying to repeat the familiar formula. With its topical themes and more nuanced, ambitious song textures, Sea of Noise offers a richer listening experience than the more traditional revivalist Soul-inflections of Half the City. You also get the sense that Janeway has learned he doesn’t have to vocally go for broke on every song. Even the cover evokes a cosmic, contemporary bent. Picture a golden altar made up of flying saucers, angel wings and two pistols facing each other, floating in deep blue space. 

“I knew even before our first record came out that our second one would be different,” Janeway says.

“I wrote this before campaign season last year, but there was something already in the air,” the singer continues. “It was kind of having your pulse on what was going on, scratching that creative itch. For me, the first record felt more like standard fare — R&B, Soul music kind of a thing. You know — heartbreak, personal loss, let’s dance. And there’s nothing wrong with that, at all. But this time I was looking for creative ways to explore the Southern identity in modern times.”

It doesn’t hurt that the band recruited ringers like veteran Memphis producer/musician Lester Snell (Isaac Hayes, etc.) to arrange string charts on certain songs, and also used the stirring Gospel swell of the Tennessee Mass Choir to complement Janeway’s elastic falsetto on funky, rousing anthems such as first single “All I Ever Wonder.” The strings’ dark warmth replaces some of the Bones’ horn section’s punchy bombast on songs like “I’ll Be Your Woman.”

As a bonus, the band even recorded part of the record in Memphis’ Stax Records Museum and in Sam Phillips’ recording studio. Rooted in the trinity of Soul music destinations, like Alabama’s own Muscle Shoals studio and Detroit’s Motown, Memphis embodies the mecca of Soul — not to mention Blues and Rock & Roll. The Reverend Al Green still preaches and dazzles weekly in his church located about a mile from Elvis’s Graceland.

Janeway’s own crisis of faith thematically influenced Sea of Noise as well. “Burning Rome,” the record’s centerpiece song, traces his disillusion with the Church as he testifies in a scorched-earth wail, seemingly soaked in kerosene and existential doubt.

“When we did that song, the guys thought it was kind of a standard ballad,” Janeway says of the band’s first introduction to the tune. “It’s not ‘I’m brokenhearted because my woman left me,’ it’s about that struggle with religion, God, spirituality — all of those things balled up in one — and it goes through a coming to enlightenment. That was a fun one to try to explain to Mom and Dad.”

“Crumbling Light Posts, Parts 1-3” ripples through the record in brooding surges of symmetry. This motif took root because of Janeway’s voracious reading habits. This is a man determined to deepen his connections to the world, and that hard-earned self-knowledge improves Sea of Noise, especially lyrically.

“I was reading an FDR biography, bizarrely enough, and that quote came up, because Churchill is trying to convince the U.S. to get involved in WWII as Germany is bombing England,” Janeway says. “I thought that’s beautiful imagery — it brings up this very distinct image of England being this crumbling lighthouse in a sea of darkness. I thought that could be associated with so many things in modern times. I thought it was a good common theme and the glue that held the intent of the record.”

Books aside, during concerts, St. Paul & the Broken Bones swagger and swing their way through loaded sets of garage Soul music with a streak of Punk Rock abandon. This is a working band, and an inspired one.

Janeway chuckles. “The only three rules of the band are: try to write great music, be on time and play a great show,” he says.

ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES play a sold-out show Friday at Madison Theater. More info: madisontheateronline.com.

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