Soul music is, among many things, a form of psychological inquiry. Consider these releases from the glory days of the 1970s: James Brown's Revolution Of The Mind; Al Green Explores Your Mind; Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Music Of My Mind. Soul's blend of improvisational openness and grounded grooves creates a framework for players and singers to go deep into expressive exploration, mirroring and enhancing the sine waves of memory and the scattered frequencies of grief, pleasure and desire. The soul singer turns him or herself inside-out to respond to the world. "We're crumbling light posts in a sea of noise," Paul Janeway wails in a motif that runs throughout Sea Of Noise, the second album by St. Paul & The Broken Bones. The light emanates from below the psyche's surface.
Sea Of Noise lifts this Alabama eight-piece from its spot as the nation's best young party band into headier and more exciting territory, where insights matter more than mere imitation. If its 2014 debut album Half The City proved that the group had the chops to refresh bar-band revivalism, this new release stands firmly in the present. This is most evident in Janeway's lyrics; throughout Sea Of Noise, he contemplates racial violence and political unrest, considering how it affects his intimate relationships and asking hard questions about how to respond as a compassionate person and a man of faith. "I can't tell what side I'm on," he sings in the praise-choir rouser "All I Ever Wonder." Horns and background voices keep him lifted. In songs like this one and the Temptations-touched "Brain Matter," his confusion becomes a welcome challenge to think harder and feel more.
Produced by Paul Butler, who helped the English singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka find a similar immediacy within vintage grooves, Sea Of Noise expands the playbook for the Alabama band beyond its Southern soul-triangle comfort zone. Otis Redding remains a touchstone in the sweat-stained ballads "Burning Rome" and "Sanctify," and the rhythmic hard boil in dance numbers like "Midnight On Earth" maintains the group's fealty to both Stax and Motown. But this album's more sophisticated, streamlined song structures also place St. Paul in 2016, alongside the great old-school refurbishers at Daptone Records, the genre-blasting Alabama Shakes, and even pop stars like Bruno Mars. Drummer Andrew Lee, bassist Jesse Phillips, keyboardist Al Gamble and guitarist Browan Lollar build airtight sonic structures instead of the amiably loose ones they once favored. In the past, the band's horn section often provided a needed jolt of clarity; now, it takes the songs into new spaces, exploring jazz-funk, orchestral pop and country-soul. Janeway, having worked to master the wild current of his squalling tenor, moves with grace and confidence through these spacious arrangements, laying back to consider his words, letting insight unfold through the turns of his poetic phrases.
Janeway has also matured as a love man, playing it cool with his falsetto in the deliciously disco "Flow With It" and honoring Al Green's sacred-to-secular eroticism in "Sanctify." Maybe best is "I'll Be Your Woman," a passion play cast in the language of gender-fluid millennials; when Janeway sings the title phrase to a female lover, murmuring, "Let me lay in your strong arms," there's no need for bluster. He's thought this through, and he can be honest. Inside his mind, such complexities feel comfortable.