Written by 4:55 am Audiophile Music

Leon Bridges: Pure Vintage Pop Soul For Now People

The universe conspires to let Mark Smotroff discover a bright new soul star


The old cliche about the world working in mysterious ways proves itself true in my little corner of the universe, time and time again. 

Call it coincidence. Call it dumb luck.  

Whatever.

AR-LeonBridgesCOVER225.jpgOver this past Summer, I went to an event in a tropical location where I got to meet a lot of new people from all over the country.  One fellow I was introduced was a fairly hardcore music fanatic and collector from Philadelphia, somewhat similar myself yet with some distinctly different twists to his approach. We talked a great deal about music new and old.  And before we parted ways, he made sure I was left with his predictions for the year. 

As part of his distinctly different approach to my way of discovering and collecting music, he follows Britain’s New Music Express very closely — religiously, really — and collects most everything appearing in their charts. 

Weekly…  

Accordingly, he was raving about an album he’d discovered through them by a fellow named Leon Bridges, testifying passionately that it was going to be the album of the year and worthy of a Grammy. 

The way he described it, my ears perked up and I made a mental note that as soon as I got back to San Francisco I would start looking for Mr. Bridges music. Well, me being me, within 24 hours of returning home I found myself in Amoeba Records looking for interesting things and — of course — bargains. 

I always scour the bargain bins. 

But, imagine my surprise to find an almost new copy of Leon Bridges brand new album in the $2 bins, still in the shrink wrap and containing the download code!  It came with a disclaimer in the form of a yellow “sticky note” attached to it warning of bad label damage on the disc. Looking inside, I saw that indeed an extra label had been pressed into the deadwax run-off groove at the end of side one. But… most of the rest of the album was fine.  So… for $2 and based on the raves from the East Coast fellow a few days prior, I decided to throw caution to the wind and grab this bargain bin bargain. 

AR-LeonBridgesBADlabel225.jpgDespite the obvious production flaw in my copy of Coming Home, it is generally a fine sounding record, albeit one with a seriously vintage vibe. The 180-gram vinyl is dead quiet and well centered.  The MP3 download sounds pretty solid too all things considered — it sounds smaller, if you will, than the LP version. No big harsh digital edges immediately apparent on the download, but it is a less punchy, less fulfilling sounding version of the album that works just fine in the car.  

I am a little concerned about the production flaw however because I heard from another friend that he too had a bad pressing which he had to return because of “non-fill” issues (little gaps in the pressing due to a variety of reasons, which result in annoying little noises upon playback).  So, proceed with caution folks and don’t hesitate to return the album for a new copy if there is anything that seems wrong to you.  

But back to the music within, which is what matters most here…

This album is real real good and is growing on me with each listen. The first thing that caught my ear was the production — the album bears a very old sonic footprint, one of vintage pop and soul records from the early to mid-60s. Leon’s voice sounds something like Sam Cooke by way of the young Marvin Gaye. 

 Not a bad pedigree, right there. 

But it was the songs. Vintage old style songs with verses and bridges and hooks! 

Oh my!

Repeat after me, Dorothy: 

Verses and bridges and hooks! Oh My!

Verses and bridges and hooks! Oh My!

Verses and bridges and hooks! Oh My!

]]>Yeah, so this album, called Coming Home sounds in many ways like it could have been recorded in 1966 with the finest of Memphis session players. There is no attempt to hybridize the sound. Not knowing the details first hand on how this album was made, but it sounds even more authentic to the feel of the period than, say, even Amy Winehouse’s hit, “Rehab.”

AR-LeonBridgesLPplaying225.jpgIf this album really sells and becomes album of the year like my Philadelphia friend was predicting, it will be a really great thing for more traditional songwriters and musicians everywhere.  Because it will a signal something of a turning of the tide in public taste and a desire for more song-y songs. This, as opposed to a lot of the electronic dance music (EDM) flavored hits that have driven so much of the marketplace for the past 10 years or so, hits which rely on sampling of other songs and prior hits by other artists, as well as intensive production work in digital audio workstation programs such as Pro Tools. Frankly, Beck’s Morning Phase winning Album of the Year last year was also a hint that the public’s tastes are shifting, or at least expanding. 

Don’t get me wrong, I have no big problem with EDM stuff, if it is done well. My problem with it is that a so much of the stuff I have heard is poorly constructed, churned out disposable bump-‘n-grind grooves with little attention to song craft. When a song relies on a sampled chorus and hook from a song made 30 years ago, that says to me that the artist has been lazy and is just trying to ride the gravy train. And yet, who am I to judge them?  If they make a hit and it makes some people happy then I guess its a good thing, especially if it introduces them to the music of the original artist.  

So, does Leon Bridges album have that level of songwriter-ly songwriting?  I think so. I know that some tunes are already sticking with me such as the twisty-groove of “Smooth Sailin'” and the Sam Cooke-meets-Otis Redding flavored “Better Man.”  “Flowers” is a kickin’ little swinger of a boogie woogie-esque song.

Some of you older folks out there might be wondering why anyone would want to hear something like this when they can easily pick up original recordings by Otis Redding, Solomon Burke and Marvin Gaye?  Well, firstly, most of us never got to see Otis Redding perform in his heyday.  So why shouldn’t a new generation of fans get a chance to put their own soul hero up the pop charts?  I say bring it on.  And then I say lets give others who have been toiling diligently at their songwriting and performing craft — like Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings — a shot in the major label limelight. 

Knowing little about this artist as a person and based purely on the music contained on his first album, I’m encouraged by Leon Bridges. It takes a lot of courage to end a mostly pop-flavored album with a stripped down acoustic guitar based song of redemption, backed only by a chorus of Gospel-flavored singers harmonizing “Take me to your river, I want to go.”

We’ll see if Leon Bridges rises up to cleanse our musical souls like Al Green did back in the day…  

Bring it on.

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