The holidays usually bring out the nostalgic in some of us. If you are like me and get the chance to spend it with your family, coming home can renew old memories and experiences. The old records my parents keep in the attic (despite no longer having a turntable), remind me that they too were young and loved music as much as I do. Part of the fun of thumbing through their old records, many still partially wrapped in plastic with price stickers from stores like Zare or Montgomery Ward on them, is the mid-century modern styled album art.
Like the old saying “what comes around goes around”, however repeated patterns never play out exactly the same way twice. Take the neo and retro soul movements for example. When the neo soul movement gained popularity over a decade ago, it seemed that it’s counterpart retro-soul was poised to follow in it’s footsteps. That never really happened outside the places soul music connoisseurs and history buffs hung out.
In recent years, the disciples of a matured neo soul movement have all but cooled on the charts, but a renewed interest in retro (thanks to Amy Winehouse and others) has meant that a sub genre that was in the background has slowly been gaining momentum at the front of the charts.
This has been possible thanks in large part to the DIY nature of the internet. Digital distribution and promotion on Bandcamp and Soundcloud has allowed young hipsters with a yearning for the days of record players and cassette decks to find an audience.
Some like Leon Bridges, have gone back further to the age of segregation and giant wood grained hi-fi sets to evoke a simpler yet troubled time. In the process of doing so, Bridges ma have become vintage retro’s new champion. The Dallas-Ft.Worth music scene just might get out of the shadow of Austin after all, if there are more like Bridges waiting in the wings.
Bridges was not even born when the artist who inspired him were in their heyday. As a talented composer/arranger and guitar player, Bridges recorded songs using analog equipment and uploaded them to Soundcloud.
He attracted a considerable number of followers the least of which were Austin based Josh Black and Austin Jenkins of White Denim. As creators of Niles City Sound, a new studio in Ft. Worth, Bridges debut LP Coming Home would be one of the studio’s first projects.
Black and Jenkins had a vision for Niles City Sound that fit perfectly with Bridges who took the concept of retro seriously, even down to the album’s cover art that featured him in high waist paints and sweater like someone straight outta 1964. In fact Coming Home was recorded with time tested analog techniques, giving the reordering a warm vintage feel.
The fact that Bridges is often compared to Sam Cooke or Odis Redding was no accident. Like those legendary soul singers, Bridges uses simple melodies and arrangements to highlight his wonderful voice. While not as warm or varied as either Cooke or Redding, Bridges voice is still convincingly sweet considering he was hardly 25 when the album was recorded.
Coming Home make almost no concessions to contemporary musical styles, to it’s credit. It’s refreshing to hear something so focused in it’s dedication to vintage fidelity, both technically and creatively.
For his boldly retro approach, Bridges still managed to break out of the high art ceiling that black sub pop music that is not rap is often relegated to. Besides being a big hit on Spotify, the title track was a top ten single in both America and England. Musical styles like the ragtime piano of “Flows” or the doo woop backing vocals in “Shine” are a nice break from the electronically enhanced quasi dance style of today’s R&B.
Leon Bridges is not the first or only retro soul artist releasing music this year, but is one of the most significant – if not for the strict dedication to presenting the music as it might have been 60 years ago with no synchronized dancing girls or displays of gaudy bling.
Perhaps Leon Bridges supper club aesthetic will catch on. Even if the look fails to get traction the appeal of real instruments being played and real singing from the soul is timeless.