Paul Janeway, lead singer of St. Paul and the Broken Bones, suggests that his band could have followed up their acclaimed debut album, Half The City, in quicker succession. But he views the group's newly released follow-up, Sea of Noise, as a case of better things coming to those who wait.
"I think had we written that [second] record in October 2014, I think we would have made Half The City Part Two. And I didn't want that," Janeway said in a mid-September phone interview. "Whether it was fair or not, we'd kind of been cast with the retro soul thing. And we were just kind of like, there's nothing wrong with that, but for us, our musical tastes, especially now, ran much further than that. So it was just like, let's open up the musical palate and really explore that. Because we could do the soul thing, crank out those songs any day of the week. It comes very natural to us. And I'm not saying we won't do that [a soul album] again, but for us it was like, let's really explore what's influencing us, the world around us, those kinds of things. And we did.
"I think that was the goal," he said. "Whether that was accomplished or not, I don't know, but it felt good. I'm proud."
Chances are listeners will agree that St. Paul and the Broken Bones took a significant step forward musically on Sea of Noise. The classic soul roots of the group that were so prominent on Half The City are still plenty apparent on the new album, but the songs draw on a wider range of styles and the music overall is richer and more layered. There are hints of Sly & the Family Stone in the percolating "Midnight on the Earth," but there's also gritty rock in this song, which builds to a powerful finish behind a sweet horn part. The stellar ballad "I'll Be Your Woman" (a song that lyrically flips gender roles on their head) has pop elements that could work for Burt Bacharach within an otherwise darker-hued primary melody. The luscious ballad "Waves" feels a bit like the Black Keys meeting up with Memphis soul. Sea of Noise is also more assertive. Where Half The City was almost entirely made up of ballads and medium-paced tunes, the tempos get notched up on "All I Ever Wonder" (an edgy tune that bursts out in epic crescendos), the dramatic, string-laden "Brain Matter" and the insistent "Tears in the Diamond," which sounds like a primo Al Green number.
It makes sense that Sea of Noise would show musical growth, since St. Paul & the Broken Bones were about as new as a band can get when Half The City was written and recorded.
"I tell people this all the time, we were a band less than five months when we made that record," Janeway said.
It all started when bassist Jesse Phillips, who had been in a band with Janeway, got some free studio time and invited Janeway to come over for the day. The idea was to try to finish writing and record a song they started writing during their time in the previous band, which specialized in Led Zeppelin covers. At the time, neither Janeway nor Phillips was planning a future in a band together. In fact, Janeway was close to earning a college degree in accounting and expected to pursue that line of work.
But when they completed the stirring and soulful horn-laced song "Broken Bones & Pocket Change," Janeway and Phillips knew they were onto something. So they quickly assembled a band to make a debut EP, Greetings From St. Paul and the Broken Bones. Phillips knew guitarist Browan Lollar (a former member of Jason Isbell's band, the 400 Unit) as well as drummer Andrew Lee. Janeway approached trombonist Ben Griner, who then recruited trumpet player Allen Branstetter to join the group. Keyboardist Al Gamble then completed the original lineup, which later expanded to include Jason Mingledorff (saxophone, clarinet, flute) and Chad Fisher (trombone).
The group members then turned their attention to making Half The City, but had to rush the project — writing eight new songs to go with four from the EP in November and December 2012, and then going into the studio in January 2013 to record because producer Ben Tanner (keyboardist with the Alabama Shakes) had only a month available to work on the album.
Obviously, the band members were much more familiar with each other going into Sea of Noise, having spent two-plus years on tour to promote the first album. The group also made sure to take the necessary time writing and recording Sea of Noise.
"It was completely different because I'm incredibly familiar with those guys and know what they're capable of," Janeway said of the process of making Sea of Noise. "With us being around each other so much, we have a lot of chemistry.
"It was a better experience than the first time for me personally because I got to think about what I was doing," he said. "I got to really ask, like, 'Is something being said [in a song], and if it's being said, what is it?' — that kind of thing. And I didn't have that chance with Half The City. And it gave that record a sense of urgency, which was good. I think that's what stands out about it. But for me it was just nice to really let this stuff marinate."
As with Half The City, Janeway and bassist Jesse Phillips were the primary songwriters. And while the singer was open to considering songwriting contributions from other band members, he thinks the band is better served by having himself and Phillips continue to take the creative lead.
"One thing I've realized is that it's hard to write songs with eight people because everybody has an opinion," Janeway said. "So we did a little bit of that [on Sea of Noise], but there was a format. And I'm fine with a little bit of it as contributions from other band members, but when you're starting from scratch, it's typically a bad idea. But everybody's been really great."
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