St. Paul and the Broken Bones Get Funky on "Young Sick Camellia" (Review)
Full disclosure: St. Paul and the Broken Bones are a little out of my regular wheelhouse. While I'm usually comfortable reviewing alternative, metal or rock music, I don't usually delve into the heartfelt, blue-eyed soul that St. Paul and the Broken Bones deliver so emphatically. My first experience with the eight piece(!) soul group was at Meadows Festival a couple years ago, when the band blew me away with a cover of Tame Impala's "Eventually" that puts the original to shame. I found their music surprisingly accessible for how dated the style of music can sometimes seem, and when I heard that Young Sick Camellia, their third studio album, was on the horizon, I prematurely decided it was essential listening. While I wasn't disappointed with the quality of material, I will say I felt a little gypped with the amount of songs on the release.
The album opens on a cheerful and mild-mannered instrumental track, ending oddly in a sample of an audio clip of a what sounds like a man from down South speaking about something or other. The album immediately picks up with "Convex," a song that really sums up what St. Paul and the Broken Bones are all about. The fretting piano and understated instrumentals give way to Paul Janeway's powerful vocals, starting out low and calm before jumping up into a signature chorus where Janeway gets to really stretch his vocal chords. Still, this song lacks the bigger, more bombastic choruses that St. Paul and the Broken Bones have utilized in some of their more popular songs, a signal of the slight difference in creative choices on this record. The irritatingly named "GotItBad" almost made me laugh when it started, the cheesy violin and groove-influenced opening seconds creating a time-warp to the 70's. But if you can forgive the cheese, the track is a lot of fun, an attitude-filled melody that is surprisingly cynical in its lyrics ("We are just bruised fruit falling from the tree/ God is a gambler who can't set us free").
Like its title suggests, "NASA"'s verses feel a bit like floating through space, with dreamy guitar and bass accompanied by long, drawn out notes from the keys and brass section. The chorus finally provides the grit and emotion that I had been waiting for since track 1 as well, an element crucial to St. Paul's sound (especially live). After "NASA" soulfully crashes down, we are subjected to "Mature pt.2," a continuation of Cumulus pt. 1 composed of flute, piano, keys, awkward trumpet and more Southern storytelling. Spoiler alert: This trend continues with "Dissipating pt.3" later on and "CaveFlora pt.1" later still. I might as well cover all of these songs in one sweep - they are largely unnecessary, and bloat what is really a 9-song album to 13 songs. I don't mind an interlude, but this kind of track layout is misleading, and honestly a little cheap. With that out of the way, I can safely talk about "Apollo," a jaunty, smooth track that makes use of a relatively quieter brass section to allow Janeway's vocals to shine once again. I talk about Janeway a lot, but his vocals are the standout part of this album - more-so than in previous releases, if only because the instrumentals seem to shine less this time around and seem lower priority in the production.
"Mr. Invisible" is easily the most diverse song on the album. Again with vocals on the forefront, St. Paul utilizes an R&B adjacent backbeat along with a repeating xylophonic melody to create a distinct collection of sounds. The backing arrangement almost has the effect of sounding mechanical, creating an interesting frame for Janeway to sing odd lines about "zombies in the sun" and, ya know, "zombies in the moon" also. "Hurricanes" provides a much more effective break than any of the interludes do, bittersweet acoustic guitar picking providing a pretty string of notes for the vocals to croon over. Without the big band to provide grandiosity and bluster, Janeway sounds incredibly vulnerable and affecting, making "Hurricanes" memorable as almost a captured moment of weakness.
After another damn interlude, we get another name with annoying spacing and spelling, "LivWithoutU" (they can't possibly think these names are clever, right?). Now I really detest Bruno Mars, but this song sounds like it could easily be a Bruno Mars song if it was done correctly. While the catchy hooks and love song tropes are all there, St. Paul and the Broken Bones nail the execution by adding in real emotion and some incredibly impressive high notes on the part of Janeway. "Concave" has a tinge of the South in it without being outright country music. While uplifting, "Concave" just dodges being saccharine with some small touches in production and delivery, such as vocals that approach spoken word and acoustic guitar being put in very low in the mix. After the final interlude, we get the piano ballad "Bruised Fruit" to close the album. Like "Hurricanes," "Bruised Fruit" adds a nice counterbalance to the big band antics of the other songs, the stripped down performance preventing the album from becoming overwhelming in its production and content. It makes you wonder why they couldn't include one more song like this and get rid of the interludes, which seem tonally jarring without adding much.
That's a lot of smack talk about interludes. But the truth is that, despite the somewhat slim offerings and lack of true innovation, St. Paul and the Broken Bones have put out another incredibly solid soul album. This is some of St. Paul's catchiest, most tightly produced work, mixing a music style that feels somewhat stuck in the past with modern recording techniques to create an album that is accessible and fun to listen to.