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Soul Band St. Paul And The Broken Bones Returns With 'Sea Of Noise'


NPR music critic Ann Powers first saw the soul band St. Paul and The Broken Bones three years ago. It was a weeknight at a tiny club in Tuscaloosa, a $5 cover charge at the door, and within 15 minutes the place was totally packed. There was no doubt lead singer Paul Janeway and the rest of the group were doing something special. And, Ann says, they still are.


ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) We're just crumbling lights posts. Crumbling light posts. In a sea of...

CORNISH: That's the haunting opening of the second album from St. Paul and The Broken Bones. The album's called "Sea Of Noise." And here to talk more about it is Ann Powers. Ann, welcome back.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie. How are you doing today?

CORNISH: Good. So this is a group where your first album you describe them as having the chops to refresh bar band revivalism, which I didn't know was a thing. What were your expectations for this album?

POWERS: It's been a joy to watch St. Paul and The Broken Bones grow over the past few years. You know, they're a big band with horns and keyboards, and they've just expanded on their sound. But what really strikes me about "Sea Of Noise" is the maturity in the lyrics and in the stance they take, making retro-revivalism something that's also very current and relevant to 2016.

CORNISH: All right. Well, let's dive in with a song called "All I Ever Wonder," which seems to go in the direction you're talking about.


ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) Velvet fist in the gut while everyone is slinging mud...

CORNISH: As soon as I hear about mudslinging, I know we're talking about politics, unfortunately, Ann. Talk a little bit about this song.

POWERS: It really reminds me of kind of vintage political soul by groups like The Temptations, for example. The imagery that Paul Janeway is using - he says, velvet fist in the gut while everyone is slinging mud. Jesus found his politics, but nobody listens. He's pondering the stuff that matters to him as someone who was raised in the church, as someone who's looking around trying to figure out how he can engage with these conversations, knowing his music connects with a political tradition but also, you know, feeling the confusion of the day, which I think is very much where a lot of, you know, people of his generation - millennials - stand today, trying to figure out how to engage and doing it through music.


ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) I can't tell what side I'm on. I can't tell what's right or wrong.

CORNISH: You know, you wrote back in 2014 about the origin story of this band, and you said, quote, "That they were white Southern kids essentially chasing the region's African-American musical spark." How do they walk that line - right? - of doing this kind of throwback soul music as essentially an all-white group?

POWERS: There's nothing more complicated than being a white soul band from Alabama, Audie (laughter).


ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) Where'd you go, my sweet devotion?

POWERS: St. Paul and The Broken Bones are based in Birmingham, but they've spent a lot of time in Muscle Shoals, Alabama as well. And, of course, that's a place where white and African-American musicians have always played together. And there is an ideal of interracial harmony. And although this is an all-white group, St. Paul have often toured with bands like The Alabama Shakes and The Seratones, who have very strong female African-American leaders. I think that their community is one that challenges them to live up to an ideal of addressing these issues in the songs, and I'm really happy they're starting to do it more explicitly.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, I want to play at least one song that's about just getting your groove on, really, 'cause this band can still do that, right?

POWERS: Yeah. Oh, my goodness, yes.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit about what they're like live, and then we'll hear a song called "Midnight On Earth."

POWERS: It's always my favorite moment in a St. Paul show when the horns are cookin', and the keyboards and the rhythm section are creating a groove. And Paul is going right out there in the crowd. And I think there are moments on this record where you feel him reaching out to you - you know, reaching out with that sweat-covered hand to shake your hand and say, let's all lift each other up and do a little dancing.


ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) I'm going to take a rocket, swing around all the Milky Way...

CORNISH: And that song, "Midnight On Earth," from the album "Sea Of Noise." It's from the band St. Paul and The Broken Bones. NPR music critic Ann Powers brought them to us. Ann, thanks for sharing.

POWERS: Thanks so much, Audie. I'll see you on the dance floor.


ST. PAUL AND THE BROKEN BONES: (Singing) I'm just trying to love you, ain't nobody above you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.