In a Time of Corporate Pop, Soul Might Be Making a Comeback

St. Paul and the Broken Bones is part of the new old school. | Photo by David McClister.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones is part of the new old school. | Photo by David McClister.

There are some things one keeps hoping for, be it world peace or true love, rocket-powered skates or calorie-free bacon. Me, I’ve given up on all that, but I do still wish for factory-style EDM and corporate pop pap to be replaced with something more raw, more real, more human, more … soul.

Recently, it’s seemed like we could return to the classic sound of unaltered vocals, unsampled riffs and maybe a few horns. Bruno Mars, Sam Smith and Adele have gone platinum with a big-budget, radio-friendly version of soul, but a number of acts have been taking a smaller-scale, more old-school approach to the sound.

St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Vintage Trouble were throwback acts that made good in 2014. At last year’s Life Is Beautiful festival, both tore through sets that left their throats and fingers raw and their suits sweat-soaked. St. Paul and the Broken Bones come out of Alabama, with a gospel-influenced sound. Lead singer Paul Janeway looks more like the accountant he almost was than a classic soul man, but it takes serious skills to cover Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” and end it with the trademark James Brown fall-to-the-ground-and-get-back-up without looking foolish.

L.A.’s Vintage Trouble have an upbeat, dance-party take on soul: It’s no surprise that they quickly sold out a number of gigs on their current U.K. tour, because it’s the kind of music that the mods go mad for. And not just the mods—just as Vintage Trouble opened their set at Life Is Beautiful, several of the go-go dancers and DJs of the EDM outfit Basstronauts came tearing up to the edge of the stage, bopping furiously, apparently thrilled to dance to real instruments.

This year, two more acts exploring the soul style have inspired buzz. Within the last two months, Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito won NPR’s Tiny Desk concert competition and played an enthusiastically received set at South by Southwest. Frontman Xavier Dphrepaulezz has a sound that evokes Marvin Gaye and Tom Waits, as well as the sort of backstory that might endow a man with a certain depth of feeling. He was born to an orthodox Muslim family, had a near-miss with rock stardom in the ’90s, was left in a coma after a car accident, settled down with kids on a farm and only returned to music a few years ago.

Leon Bridges has been compared to R&B musicians of the ’50s and ’60s for his elegantly liquid vocals, vintage instruments and Mad Men-era wardrobe. The Fort Worth, Texas, musician began making hip-hop tracks but, when he wrote a song about his mother, a friend said he sounded like Sam Cooke and Bridges found his musical muse. After two of his demos got more than a half-million views on SoundCloud, he was signed by Columbia Records, who will release his debut album this summer. Bridges made his television debut on The Late, Late Show with James Corden in March.

Perhaps this trend will take us back to a world of hands on guitar strings rather than a finger pressing “play,” with frontmen who get on the dance floor and improvise instead of just turning on a pre-programmed set and striking the Jesus pose behind the decks. I’ll keep crossing my fingers and hoping for some soul.

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