St. Paul & the Broken Bones, who have just released a new album titled Young Sick Camellia, operate in a crowded field of vintage soul fetishists. These guys pop out of bed with a glad James-Brown-like cry and a shiny horn section at the ready: Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, Allen Stone, Durand Jones & the Indications, Anderson East, the James Hunter Six, Eli “Paperboy” Reed. For a more reserved take on the style, there is Leon Bridges; for something more boisterous, Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears; for a Norwegian twist, Bernhoft.
Acts working in this mode satisfy listeners who checked out of R&B in the 1980s, when the genre started to turn away from full horn sections and cozy up to hip-hop rhythms. The bands are good for a live wallop in a festival lineup — Bonnaroo this year featured no less than three retro-soul rave-ups — and beloved by programmers at the niche radio format known as Adult Album Alternative, where Rateliff, Bridges and St. Paul are all currently in the Top Ten.
On Young Sick Camellia, St. Paul & the Broken Bones look to expand their niche. They tracked down producer Jack Splash, who is known for working with modern soul artists — singers who draw on tradition while also navigating contemporary trends. Splash is good at his job: He helped oversee Cee-Lo Green’s “Fool For You,” a Number One R&B hit, Anthony Hamilton’s “Please Stay,” from the gold-certified Point of It All album, and Alicia Keys’ “Teenage Love Affair,” from the triple-platinum As I Am.
Perhaps Splash is behind some of the growth on Young Sick Camellia. “Got It Bad” embraces a club-ready groove that was most definitely not around in the Sixties. “Live Without U” has snaking post-disco guitar lines and an orchestral hip-hop soul bridge. And on “Mr. Invisible,” sinister, bleeping electronic effects and programmed drums sneak into the mix.
But after that exciting “Mr. Invisible” intro, St. Paul & the Broken Bones are quick to stay the course, adding reassuring strums on the guitar and comforting funk bass. This is a missed opportunity — there aren’t many artists out there right now hurling out James Brown-like screams over dissonant, programmed beats — and it’s indicative of the overall timidity at work on Young Sick Camellia.