This album review is brought to you by summertime. So kick back, relax and plug in the soulful, retro sounds of Mr. Leon Bridges and his debut album, “Coming Home.”
And my “retro” I don’t mean “released a long time ago.” This little gem landed back in June. I’m talking about the sound, the feel, the texture. It’s a throwback to classic Motown with some soulful blues thrown in for good measure. And it totally works.
Which isn’t always the case with retro projects, mind you. It’s one thing to play songs that sound like they’re from a different era. Bryan Setzer was a whiz at this – the doo-wop guitar, bouncing bass, he had it down pat. Thing is, it was recorded in the 1990s, and you could tell. It was vintage in construct only, not sound. Which meant that, as cool as it was, something had been lost. It sounded like a newer version of an older sound, which is all it was.
The real joy of “Coming Home” is that it bleeds analog, sounding like it was recorded in the studio right next to Sam Cooke. It’s obvious from the opening measure of the title track that Bridges went to great lengths to acquire that vintage sound. Using an old tube mic to gain that full, slightly distorted grainy feel. Guitars plugged into actual amps instead of a digitized sound board. Drums recorded with a single mic instead of a dozen angled with corresponding boom stands.
I saw Leon Bridges perform “Coming Home” on Jimmy Fallon (whose raving about this up-and-coming Fort Worth musician first got my attention). The ageless quality was somewhat lacking, modern-day television forcing the sound to be more modern. That’s the beauty of the studio on this project. Whereas most people tap into the vast expanse of technology to make things sound bigger/better/brasher than it really is, Bridges does near the exact opposite and, through great attention to detail, takes the listener back in time in a rich, meaningful way.
The sound is what grabs you first. And the lyrics? Classic soul food. Most of the songs deal with relationships and that elusive lover, digging deep into the geography and culture of the south to express deep-felt affection and longing: What can I do, what can I do to get back to your heart/ I’d swim the Mississippi River if you would give me another start, girl. The word “baby” appears frequently – but, unlike cheesy boy-band pop, it didn’t aggravate me to no end. It feels right.
There’s some overt spiritually that finds its way into the album. “Shine” is a beautiful song that, lyrically, could translate seamlessly as a Sunday morning Confession of Sin and Pardon, presented over the accent sax and held together by one helluva Hammond organ:
Lord, don’t remember my sins
And father, please elude my transgressions
Let them blow in the wind like sand
Cause all of my deeds, you know them
Use me as your vessel
I want to shine like the candle
Shine like the burning candle in the room
The whole project from start to finish is a successful exercise in musical diversity within a pretty specified genre. This is not a small feat. In most instances these kind of projects result in nothing more than a collection of extrapolations of the same base song. You don’t get that here. Each track stands out from the other and highlights, above all, Bridges’ soul-filled voice. He never oversings, and he stays with the vocal range that works for him. It’s not terribly expansive, but he nails it every time.
“Coming Home” concludes with a call to the baptismal altar – an acknowledgement of the sins of the past and a voice from his upbringing, his mother, calling him to repentance and a cleansing wash. Take me to the River / I wanna go, Bridges and his backing vocalists sing in rich harmony, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar and a tambourine tapping lightly on the proper 2 and 4.
And you can’t help but want to follow him there, because this man is the real deal. Let’s hope his sophomore effort doesn’t lose its vintage luster. Let Leon be Leon.
When STEVE LINDSLEY is not being a pastor, or sermonizing, or songwriting/giggling, or keynoting/leading music for various retreats and conferences, or teaching Old and New Testament at his local community college, or blogging, or running and swimming and practicing yoga, or playing pick-up basketball with his two sons and letting them win, or watching music competition reality TV shows with his love wife, it probably means he’s sleeping. Follow him on Twitter at @slindsley. Visit his blog.