Smooth Sailin’ is available at:
9th June, 2015
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
The album Coming Home is available at:
Coming Home– 9.0
Better Man– 9.1
Brown Skin Girl– 8.8
Smooth Sailin’– 9.1
Lisa Sawyer– 8.8
Pull Away– 9.0
Twistin’ and Groovin’– 8.9
Better Man; Smooth Sailin’; Pull Away
℗ 2015 LisaSawyer63, Inc. under exclusive license to Columbia Records, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment
IT is unusual for me to review an artist that is both…
well-know, yet relatively undiscovered. In the case of Leon Bridges- due to his fan numbers and popularity; the review is unlikely to feature on his social media pages- that is the case. Nevertheless, great music deserves to be promoted- regardless of whether an artist is established and not in need of glowing reviews- so that is what I shall do. That said, Bridges remains relatively under-valued: at the moment he has high social media numbers; many more have not discovered his music- strange that more have not latched-onto his stunning blend of ‘70s Soul and modern-day R ‘n’ B. Before I get to Texas-based Bridges- and his smooth and sensuous blends- new topics come to mind. Soul music seems to be cloistered and under the radar: there are a few examples in the mainstream, yet largely, the Soul genre tends to go overlooked- still seen as a niche genre. Acts like Sam Smith have their own spin on the genre; current favourites Lianne La Havas, Joss Stone and John Legend are doing a great job; there is room for more on the scene. The Soul genre may be less nimble than the likes of Hip-Hop and Electro. – which often fuses other genres and sounds- yet that is not to say it is flat and narrow. Not only in terms of emotions- the despairs of broken love to the euphoria of a new day- but sounds, the genre has a lot of elasticity and inventiveness. If you find a really great singer- whose voice can transcend boundaries and cause shivers- then so much can be achieved. Soul need not be predictable and limited: fusing Motown and Stax elements into the blend; horns and celebratory strings; cross-pollinating with Folk and Rock- there are few limits that are imposed on the up-and-coming Soul artist. Unfortunately, and seemingly true of the mainstream’s best, there are limited ideas and effect. With the likes of Stone, Smith and Legend passing their best; La Havas below par- or what we expect from her; what she is capable of- you have to ask whether there is a problem. I am not sure what’s causing it; whether there is a lack of inspiration- the mainstream is not producing a great deal of terrific Soul acts. Once more, the ‘underground’ (musicians not signed or less recognised) that are providing relief. Maybe there is a fear of treading on toes- utilising the magic of the legends like Sam Cooke and Otis Redding opens you up to close scrutiny- but artists need to be braver. On that note, there is no shame in a little tribute: employing embers of the greats; a little touch to the vocal. Paolo Nutini has the gravel and power of Otis Redding; mixes Soul and Blues templates; plenty of stunning compositions- to create music that is captivating and new. At the core is his unique perspective and stunning voice- the public embraced his powerful anthems and wonderful love songs. The underground acts are as inventive and distinct; there needs to be more of this inventiveness and boldness- otherwise the genre will stagnate and fade away. Before I raise a new point, let me introduce Leon Bridges (biography sourced from Wikipedia):
“Bridges began his career by writing songs and learned guitar in order to play simple chords to accompany his lyrics. He played at open-mic nights around Fort Worth while working as a dishwasher until he was signed by Columbia Records in 2014. It was his song “Lisa Sawyer”, about his mother’s conversion, that first defined his style. Bridges began writing and performing 1950s and ’60s-style soul music that was described by Austin 360 as “a transmission straight from the heart.” He began to attract followers and his break into the music industry has been attributed to a run-in he had at a bar with White Denim guitarist Austin Jenkins. The duo discussed clothing and a few weeks later Jenkins and his bandmate Joshua Block ran into Bridges during a performance in north Texas. It was Bridges’s performance of “Coming Home” that caught the attention of Block and Jenkins. Bridges worked on his first few tracks with Jenkins and Block as producers. They were recording an album with vintage equipment, using an artist with an authentic, old sound. Local musicians played on the album with Bridges on vocals, including The Orbans, Quaker City Night Hawks, and Patriot. Bridges released two demo songs on Soundcloud in late 2014. “Coming Home” received regular airplay on radio stations ranging from KKXT to London. It and “Lisa Sawyer” received more than 800,000 views and attracted the attention of more than 40 record labels with Bridges eventually signing with Columbia Records in December 2014.
Bridges began his first national tour in January 2015, playing shows in Texas as well as playing support for Sharon Van Etten in New York. His first official single, “Coming Home” was released on Columbia Records in February 2015. The song continued the success of the demo version and became a Top 10 Most Viral Track on Spotify the same month as its release. Bridges toured with Jenkins and Block until they resumed work with White Denim. He also played at the Sundance Film Festival and is scheduled to play at SXSW in 2015. His debut album is scheduled to be released in the summer of 2015 and has been referred to as a 2015 Album to Look Forward to From Texans byThe New York Times. Bridges made the cover of Fort Worth, Texas magazine in May 2015 for not only his vocal accomplishments but also his distinctive retro style.
Bridges is part of the throwback artists: those with their souls in the ‘60s and ‘70s; writing songs with a vintage heart- evocative church organs and Doo-Wop vocals; physical declarations (to win a girl) and parping horns. Texas is producing some forward-thinking and pioneering acts; musicians with their eyes in the future- very much the here-and-now attitude. Bridges seems out of place; someone with his mind cast back- more at home in the early-‘60s than 2015. With regards his debut album (Coming Home) there is plenty of personality and insight- songs that are from the heart and deeply introspective- that mingles with overt and bombastic decelerations. The songs have a classic formula; they hark back to the days of Sam Cooke: from the horns and Gospel tinges; the subject matter and production values- it breaks away from modern Soul; differs from the U.K.-based sounds of Smith and Nutini. Whilst a lot of Soul artists hark to the past- and showcase their love of ‘60s/’70s Soul overtly- Bridges has some modern sensibilities; he is a vibrant and fresh voice; someone who understands the urgency and uncertainty of the times. If his music evokes memories past, his ambitions and marketing is very much a 21st century agenda: he has a huge social media following. With a management team behind him; a clear and effective online strategy- he is very much a modern artist; someone who understands the importance of the Internet age. It would be nice to see some more retro. touches come in- strip back the production sound; have some one-off vinyl releases perhaps. Before I get down to the music itself, I have my head in Texas- a state that is showcasing some terrific artists. The Tontons, Josh Abbot Band and Churchwood call Texas home; each act recalls different emotions and genres- all are stunning to witness. From Fat Tony’s Houston Rap; to Bonnie Whitmore’s Denton Americana- via Max Frost’s Austin Pop-cum-Hip-Hop fusions- the state is producing some of music’s best and brightest. Bridges sits nicely into the mix- although Texas does not have too many black Soul singers- and is doing the state proud. Compared to areas like L.A. and New York- which are more Rock and Indie-driven- Texas has that richness and range; mastery of ‘softer’ genres- County and Americana; Soul and Folk- that is capturing a lot of attention.
Bridges has unveiled his debut album: an artist that is going in direct and ambitious; hard and meaningful. When I normally review an act- that are just coming through and emerging- there are cover versions and E.P.s; the odd collaboration- Bridges is making his first impressions. In terms of comparisons- seeing how far he has come; how he has developed- it is a hard job. The initial signs are all positive: Bridges sounds confident and assured; not naïve or slight- his music has its own voice and sound. A lot of acts- that go straight in with an album- sound premature and directionless; like they have just jumped in. Bridges knows his strengths and songs; they are all lovingly delivered- well-rehearsed and crafted; the sound of a man who knows his mind.
The best thing to do is to compare artists: see who Bridges is inspired by; where he has come from- and how his voice has been shaped. Sam Cooke is often mentioned- when it comes to the vocals at least- and is a pertinent starting place. That sensuality and smoothness; the sexuality and power- Bridges has adapted Cooke for his own means- not in a lazy way; he is a modern-day version. There are touches of other Soul artists (in Bridges’ voice) yet Cooke is the most obvious- if you have not heard of either; rectify this and investigate. For all the comparisons- critics and reviewers are keen to jump to conclusions- the most obvious comparables are the overall sound. Bridges does not replicate a singer or artist- he replicates the sound of ‘60s Soul; the greats of the era. Bridges has a very unique and honed voice- that actually goes out of its way to sound fresh- whilst the music itself is most ‘familiar’. The warm and regal horns; the swaying and sensual codas; the backing vocals and lyrical themes- taking us back to a golden age of Soul. For existing fans of that time period- and all the glorious music produced- they will find much to love. There is some familiarity- in the ways the songs are structured; the lyrical references and subject matter- but a renewed sense of urgency and pace. The production is more polished and shiny; it adds shine to the genre- and gives it a fresh kick. Those new to Soul- or whose only exposure is through modern purveyors- I would suggest you head back; pick up those ‘60s legends- to get a sense of how Bridges has been moulded. Above all, the young Texan wants to make his own mark; be his own boss- the grace and panache he offers each track is startling and impressive. He is not someone that is hanging to coattails; he is a proud and hungry young star- that is the abiding impression; that is what you should take away.
A smooth and foot-imploring brass coda opens Smooth Sailin’: the saxophone blows with impunity; eliciting a shivering and comforting blast- ensuring the song instantly gets inside your mind. Without much further ado, out hero jumps to the microphone- his voice begins with determination and direction. Things will be smooth sailing (“Over the horizon”); there is that sense of safety- getting onto firmer ground. Perhaps speaking to a lover- or the girl of his desires- Bridges employs nautical metaphors; seas and ships- as the girl entrances him. Liking the way she sails her ship; he wants to be her cargo- an image that is not-oft used in songwriting; it is a vivid and strong image (with a little sexual innuendo stuck in there). Carried by the sway of the composition- that boasts a punchy and slapped percussive beat- Bridges lets his voice swim; dive inside the words- he sounds utterly seduced and wide-eyed. Promising not to “wear (you) down”, the saxophone comes back a-blazing: eliciting the most fire-crackling moment, the song kicks up a notch- and hits the heights. The images and visions of ships/the sea never become heavy-handed and juvenile: Bridges ensures each representation is charming and affective- not wanting to see the listener’s mind wander. He is not sure the destination- where he and his girl is headed- yet he wants to be the passenger; help and guide her- effectively, take her to promised shorelines. As our hero heads back to his central message- being cargo; not weighing the girl down- some (female) backing vocals are introduced; sparring with Bridges- emphasising the odd word and sentiment. A cute and slinking one-two, the song mutates once more; adds evocation and weight- gets more passionate and fevered. The chorus’s words are delivered smoothness and tenderness- as the female backing vocal joins in once more- giving you a sense of tranquility and peacefulness. Before more words are unveiled- and our man unfolds more of the story- his band unites to create something soulful and electric. The guitar wails and vibrates; the percussion teases and tempts; tambourine notes shimmy and hiss. With Bridges back at the mic., our hero is determined and at his lustful peak. Whilst contemporaries and others are direct and spare little charm; Bridges seems a different proposition: “Sweet honey, darling” is his calling; he is a polite gentleman- from the old school of Soul. In order to keep the song economical and memorable, Bridges reintroduces phrases and words- the lines about cargo and ships are repeated; the same visuals come back in. This is a smart move, as it creates instant memorability: the listener will be able to sing along; join in first time- the song (for this reason) is more effective. Never truly exploding- you wonder whether a Paolo Nutini/Iron Sky-esque vocal blast would send the song to heavens- Bridges keeps things controlled and calm. The compositions does most of the heavy work; that voice keeps gliding and pining- the song has no intention of overpowering the listener; it remains true to its lyrics. The band performance is particular impressive- that supports Bridges and the song- with the percussion standing out. Containing plenty of verve and flair, the drums crackle and cut- ensuring the song is given that needed edge of hardness and force. Around this, there is some subtle and gentle guitar; little hints of tambourine and bass- adding to the composition’s rich and unshakable thirst. His desired girl- the sweet honey darling- is causing him sweat and anxiety; there is that tangible sense of desire. Bridges keeps controlled and held-back; never letting his emotions get the better of him- a ‘60s Soul man if ever there was one. The final moments are dedicated to repetition and emphasis: our lead shakes his hips and lets his vocals swoon; his messages are clear and firm-hearted. As the percussion booms and bounces, the song comes to its end; Bridges steps back from the microphone- with his girl hopefully suitably impressed and compelled.
There are few criticisms you can levy at Leon Bridges. His voice has often been compared with the likes of Sam Cooke: on Smooth Sailin’ you get hints; it is hardly an obvious reference; there is plenty of individuality and originality. Bridges has his own accent and direction; his own way of phrasing- that separates him from Cooke. What would be nice to hear- and something that is obvious in other songs- is a little bit of injection; let that voice really soar. At times the lyrics call for more expression and commitment: the cue for the voice to rise and grip; really show some drama. That is all I can think of, because for the most, part I was stunned and impressed. Bridges keeps the lyrics simple and effective- with co-writers Austin Michael Jenkins, Joshua Block and Chris Vivion. Smooth Sailin’ does what the title suggests: that everything will be okay; against choppy waters, guidance can be found (with Bridges the oar and sense of gravity). It is great to hear a song that does not go for the jugular; too overt and promiscuous- Bridges’ Texan manners and affection for manners is obvious. He is an old-style seducer; the vocals do all the flirting and campaigning- the words need only be simple and honest. By repeating ideas and lines; creating a momentum and quotable set of lyrics- it hits the listener harder; makes it a sure-fire crowd favourite. The band (Bridges’ backing band) is effective and tight throughout. From the insatiable and hornets-nest saxophone- that beckons in the song with desire- to the groovy tambourine- each instrument adds to the wave/sea/sailing sound. The percussion is a beat that creates waves and crash; the guitars ripple and are a rip-tide- the backing vocals almost a Siren call. A simple and effective song, you cannot help fall for Smooth Sailin’- the finest moment from Coming Home. The rest of the album contains similar songs and emotions- and comparable sounds- yet none get inside you in the same manner. Showcasing all of Bridges aces- from that sonorous and multi-edged voice- to the honeyed composition, it is a tremendous track. With a little more ecstasy and rapture it could have been near-perfect; but for now at least, it shows how talented Bridges is- and just what he can offer the music world.
Coming Home has garnered a lot of attention; reviewers have paid tribute to its honesty and strength; reminiscence of the past- the authority and affection that is contained within. Bridges deliberately wants to replicate the older Soul sound- and mingle alongside his heroes- which come out across the record. There is no mimicking, yet the tracks all have a ‘60s Soul sensation- embers of Smokey Robinson and Sam Cooke can be heard in the L.P.’s finest moments- and evoke the best days of the genre. One of the main criticisms that has been suggested- when it comes to the critical feedback so far- is the lack of originality. The nostalgia trip is a pleasure to witness; that Sam Cooke-esque voice is silky and smooth- yet does it offer enough of Leon Bridges? That clear passion for ‘60s Soul runs rampant (on Coming Home) and perhaps steals focus- it is a record that is indebted to, and obsessed with, that era of music. Not trying to rip-off his heroes, Bridges sets himself apart: his voice has plenty of nuance and range; his songs- whilst having familiar and tried-and-tested themes- are charming and impassioned; the songs put you in a better place. The fan numbers speak for themselves: the young American clearly has seduced listeners; they are responding to his stunning tracks- the future looks very rosy for him. The album is a focused and economical creation- ten tracks that do not outstay their welcome; nothing strays too long- that will remain in the memory. The Soul apprentice has a lot of options ahead of him: where does he go for the next album? Does he extend his sound? We will be seeing him at the big festivals next year? I think the sophomore album should contain established elements- the ‘60s sound and subjects- whilst stripping-back the production; giving it a rawer edge- letting his voice really stand out. He has limitless potential with regards the vocals: enough power to match Nutini’s pain-wracked roars; the stunning chills that could match Amy Winehouse; the sweet notes that recall a young Smokey Robinson- able to give songs more texture and depth. When he does exploit his voice his songwriting will widen and journey: stay within the realms of love, but give the downsides- the heartache and longing- more conviction and urgency. The instrumentation could be more inventive and wide-ranging: bring in more orchestral elements; piano interludes and wild brass moments; little shades of Rock and Alternative- he would not be betraying his sounds; more giving it a little edge and range. As it stands, Bridges is destined for the big festivals- not just in the U.S. mind- and could be a feature across the U.K.’s festival line-up. Bridges is embarking on a tour of the globe: taking in the U.S. and Europe, he will be headed to the U.K. – giving us here a chance to witness him in the flesh. Smooth Sailin’ is a track that perfectly represents Leon Bridges: that inimitable and spine-tingling voice; the sensuality and passion; the ‘60s-cum-modern day tangle- around some polished and shining production values. Texas is trotting-out some wonderful and scene-stealing acts; from Rock heavyweights to Soul seducers, so much promise is beckoning forth- keep your eyes peeled in their direction. The Soul market- certainly in the mainstream- has suffered lately. The loss of icons like Amy Winehouse has made its impact; there are few contemporaries that match her brilliance and voice- those busy and rich compositions; the originality and personality. Bridges could bring about a revival: with his album gaining plaudit; his fans swelling by the week- he could be a future Soul icon. Few can deny his passion and commitment; that scintillating and dexterous voice- all the ammunition is there. If he increased his palette; expanded his sights- and took full advantage of his many talents- then he could be without rival. Coming Home is abound with soul and wide-eyed lust; strong decelerations and purity- something the public are yearning. I love Soul because of its cores and foundation: the smooth and emotive vocals; the true and pure love songs- music that is at its most direct and raw. To eradicate rainy day blues; ensure there is something bright to cherish- investigate Leon Bridges and Smooth Sailin’ Radiating with warm and commanding tones, you cannot help but get lost inside its layers; swim in its embracing arms- that underlying optimism and hope. In a music world filled with pessimism and self-flagellation; the pains and torments of love- we need something that makes us feel better about ourselves; better about music. In Bridges, you get just that- and so much more. That affection for ‘60s/’70s Soul is infectious and mesmeric; his performances are always compelling and astonishing- he will only grow stronger with time. He has a wealth of support behind him; yet so many have overlooked his potential. If you are one of them, change your thinking…
AND fall for a wonderful young artist.
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