In the history of pop music there have been quite a number of incredible moments when a new artist emerges, seemingly fully formed, armed with a bevy of great songs in their back pocket that just deliver. Other times, there is just one song that defines the group or artist, and that may be all they get known for but that’s still enough to give them a firm place in pop music history.
From Buddy Holly’s tremendous songs written before he died far too young in the 1950s to Elvis Costello’s debut coming out of the gate in the later 1970s with songs like “Watching The Detectives” and “Alison,” sometimes you just know that an artist’s music is going to last for the long haul. It was like that for me the first time I heard Jeff Buckley (RIP).
Certainly for many of us when we heard Boy George crooning “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” — he could have stopped right there and he’d be a pop music legend. Multiple Grammy award winner Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” is another one of those instantly likable songs which you know will stand the test of time.
And so it went for me the moment I recently heard the song “Colors” by Black Pumas for the first time (better late to the party than never!). I immediately got a sense something special was going on. Two weeks later I read about a new special edition reissue of their debut album which was being expanded to a two LP set to celebrate its first anniversary. I thought that was very cool conceptually — an expanded edition of a still-fresh debut album a more-or-less still new group — so I ordered it right away not having checked any of the other tracks. I just trusted my gut instinct.
The album arrived and it was exactly what I hoped it might be: a great debut by a young band showing great promise and much room for growth. The songs on Black Pumas are wonderful and certainly the hit “Colors” is a stand out. But there are plenty of other earworms here…
But what is really great about Black Pumas is not just that it has a got a sexy neo/retro soul vibe going on with all manner of groovy street smarts inside and out. No, the big thing (for me at least) is that these folks can write a good song and they know how to produce a good record. This debut Black Pumas album is a solid listening experience, start to finish.
When first listening to an artist I’m interested in, I always enjoy playing “spot the influence” and Black Pumas are a joy for that game. Beyond the obvious Al Green, Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers aesthetics — and maybe even some Otis Redding and more recent singers like the great Charles Bradley (RIP) — I’m hearing echoes of no less than Jeff Buckley and John Lennon.
For example, you get a sense of the latter on a track like “October 33” which has a deep bluesy acoustic vibe that builds steam and seems to reference back to Lennon’s mid-70s period around the time of albums like Mind Games and Walls & Bridges. “Touch The Sky” has a great acoustic guitar signature driving the song which contrasts neatly with the horn section as the song builds .
The expanded edition of the album includes their powerful arrangement of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” a hard rockin’ quasi-psychedelic gospel-tinged version which recalls no less than the Vanilla Fudge’s interpretation (from their 1967 debut album!). The Black Pumas’ version actually takes their arrangement to a space more akin to the Vanilla Fudge’s version of The Beatles’ “Ticket To Ride” (also on that same debut). It is smart that they put “Eleanor Rigby” on the bonus single that comes with the deluxe edition album as it is very much its own thing that shouldn’t detract from the brilliance of the core album.
The B-side is a great but straight forward cover of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s 1974 classic Top 10 R’n B hit “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City.”
Their version of Tracy Chapman’s classic “Fast Car” is a poignant homage and the live versions of “Colors” and other key tracks from the original album are strong compliments to the studio takes, underscoring the power potential of this band in a live-without-a-net setting. I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to seeing Black Pumas live as soon as it is safe to do so, post Pandemic!
The standard weight vinyl on this new colored vinyl reissue of Black Pumas sounds great and is fun to boot. The main album is pressed on a rich gold wax while the bonus LP is printed on a lovely splatter of deep opaque red and black. Fortunately, it is very quiet — I think the choice of opaque colors may have contributed to that (check my articles here and here on the topic here if you are curious — and well centered. No problems there. The physical album cover itself is also crafted of very high caliber materials, so this album feels immediately classic when you first pick it up in your hands. All that attention to the little details add up.
I’ve been listening to Black Pumas a lot since I got it last week and I suspect it will stay in the play bin for a while more. You can also find it streaming in warm sounding 48 kHz, 24-bits via Hi Res Qobuz (click here) and MQA Tidal (click here).
If you haven’t listened to Black Pumas yet, do check them out.