It’s a good time in history to be a lover of electronic music. In lieu of guitars, keyboards and drum sets, many of our generation’s favorite performers deliver their craft from behind MacBooks and sampling pads. And as the tech and the style continue to evolve, electronic music is only becoming cooler and cooler. This weird world is the one I live in–and it’s the one I love. I’m an avid musician, but all I do is play keyboards and make beats (to call it “producing” would be generous). FL Studio–“Fruity Loops”–is my audio platform of choice. Hardly designed to mix or post-produce “real instruments,” it’s used mostly by electronic music amateurs and prospective hip-hop producers seeking to play with synths and drum kits. Basically, people like me.
It seems fitting, then, that when KSTO published each of its staff members’ top ten albums of 2014, my list of personal favorites was dominated by electronic producers and a handful of rappers. Even the bands I included–Alt-J, Broken Bells, Chet Faker–rely heavily on samples, synths and other electronic production to make their sound what it is. So at first glance, it doesn’t make much sense that St. Paul and the Broken Bones’ Half the City was one of my very favorite records of the year.
But it’s clear to me now that it’s because of its sharp divergence from the traditional listening tastes of my peers and me that I’ve fallen so in love with this record. In an era of banging 808’s and synthesized (literally, manufactured) backing tracks, Half the City offers its listeners resounding drums, raucous rhythms, stirring guitar, and brass that’s nothing less than audacious. And the way they fit together on the album is so undeniably human. Put simply, it’s a breath of fresh air. And on top of Half the City’s sonic genius and genuineness, frontman “Saint” Paul Janeway’s vocals are the reason why. To call his singing style “emotive” would barely begin to cover the uniqueness and raw talent driving his voice, not to mention the candor and ingenuity behind his performative approach. In delivering every word, every phrase, on the album, Janeway draws from a deep well of passion that’s easily and immediately recognizable, yet incredibly rare: soul.
“All I need is a tender little touch,” Janeway announces in the opening line to “Like a Mighty River.” Later he observes, then resolves: “you are just a tired girl, and I am just a tired boy, but we ain’t gonna let it fall.” This song, the fourth on the album, is about persistence, about holding onto real love even–especially–in periods of loneliness and struggle. As its title suggests, the piece draws heavily on soul tradition in both music and lyrics. This is absolutely the case for the rest of the album, too: throughout Half the City, Janeway brings a new name and perspective to themes of friendship, loss, relationships, and aging.
Of the latter three, Janeway sings wistfully of memory and how it’s inextricably tied to both happiness and melancholy. Track nine, “Grass is Greener,” provides one particularly salient example. “How do we always do this–turn ourselves around?” he catechizes the song’s subject, a lost lover. “Remember when those sweet memories used to soothe us, make us smile?” The song continues to evoke a powerful sense of yearning, both for times past and for the person Janeway used to know. Ultimately the track closes with a powerful refrain: “Please don’t leave me.” This sentiment has been stated and echoed by a wealth of songwriters in history–we could all name dozens of tracks, probably–but here Janeway’s delivery is truly unparalleled. His performance is distinctly sensitive, sensible, sincere; and across the album, Janeway’s lyrics and voice alike are honest and vulnerable, yet resolute. At this point, it’s clear: Half the City is about endurance and hope. It’s about finding light in a dark place.
Yet while the themes addressed on Half the City are strikingly contemplative, even occasionally solemn, the listener never fails to get the impression the band is having a really, really good time. Their grooves are so tight-fitting, the rhythmic hits so huge, that it’s hard not to picture them playing through each song together smiling ear to ear. The “Broken Bones sound” is at once heartfelt and highly intelligent, methodical yet playful. Each song is crafted and performed in a way that allows each player to shine without overstepping one another or Janeway’s stunning vocals.
Put concisely, they rock.
Five days ago, when St. Paul and the Broken Bones played “Call Me” on The Late Show with David Letterman, the iconic talk show host introduced the band by proclaiming, “The first time I heard this song, I was screaming til I cried.” The audience responded with an emphatic chorus of understanding laughter. Letterman’s adulation, par for the talk-show-host course, sounds half-joking; he nearly shouts it, partly for emphasis and partly to overcome the roar of the audience. Yet it’s clear from his expression that the message is genuine. He continues, enjoining the band, “Seriously, I want this to be like the first time.” And he does mean it seriously.
Grinning, seemingly unfazed by Letterman’s flattery, Paul Janeway chuckles in response, hands relaxed in the pockets of his tuxedo pants. Letterman continues, “If I don’t get that [first-time feeling], I’m gonna stop the show”–a threat delivered with a straight face and met with a peal of laughter from the audience. But Janeway seems utterly impervious. He smiles: “Absolutely.” Apparently he’s comfortable enough to toss his own good-natured jokes of agreement right back at Letterman. Then the pressure comes on: “You know I’m retiring soon, so do it for me,” Letterman urges. “Maybe if I told you I was dying.” The crowd explodes, but Janeway simply beams again. “Alright. Let’s do it.”
On stage, Janeway is a natural: he was born to sing (not to dance), yet his movements are effortless. The performance includes a host of emotive arm and hand gestures, big steps on the big hits, some sliding from left to right. He switches the mic easily from hand to hand. It’s clear this environment is where Janeway is most comfortable. It’s where he belongs. His passion, personality and sense of humor blend easily on stage to create an engaging performance that adds a new depth to the stories he weaves so expertly throughout the record. It’s a theme that defines St. Paul and the Broken Bones for all forty minutes of Half the City, start to finish: we can address, even attack, our woes with vivaciousness. We can use music as a conduit for the notion of hope. And we can perform our songs with an unshakeable sense of faith and–perhaps most importantly–fun.
KSTO can’t wait to hear what they do next.
Zaq Baker serves KSTO as Program Director. He is a senior English and Environmental Studies major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.