Leon Bridges Coming Home
usic reviewers are notorious for their jaded reaction to new acts and the public-relations packaging that comes with them. A case in point would be 25-year-old Leon Bridges from Fort Worth, Texas. Have you heard that he was discovered one day while singing at his job as a dishwasher? When Bridges walks on the stage, it's as though aliens transported him from Chicago's Chess Studios in 1958 and plopped him in the middle of 2015, all sweet, humble and full of bright-eyed idealism. He even sings, dresses and dances like Sam Cooke's long-lost brother.
Yeah, right. And yet it's all true. Three minutes into Bridges' debut album on Columbia and you'd have to be a hard-hearted cynic not to hear why the label was in a bidding war with Atlantic to sign this kid. Yes, that's Columbia, not exactly a label known for its recent audiophile achievements in the fields of pop and rock. But the twists just keep coming. This is a stone-cold, bona fide, top-notch recording. Think of Etta James' "At Last" with better bass and even more studio ambience. For that, you can thank the folks at Niles City Sound, the invention of Josh Block and Austin Jenkins of the Texas experimental-rock group White Denim. They tricked out a studio with vintage equipment from the '40s and '50s and recorded the bulk of this disc live in a garage-like space in the industrial section of Fort Worth. (I tried to get someone associated with the recording to tell me exactly what equipment was used, but it appears to be a trade secret.) The result is a sound that is both lusciously addictive and full of performance tension. When was the last time you heard a recent recording pull off that trick? I swear I can almost see the tubes glowing as musicians hover in the ambient space each time I play this disc.
There are those who will say that Bridges is nothing more than an attempt by the recording industry to resell us a pale imitation of a bygone era or flog the Amy Winehouse fan base; my only answer to this is to recommend that you listen to "Brown Skin Girl," one of Bridges' many superb compositions on this disc. If this slow-churn love song doesn't do something to your nether regions, you might want to see your cardiologist. Bridges has serious songwriting chops. His low-key R&B tunes won't fire up the dance floor, but I suspect they may be the soundtrack to more than a few late-night moves. For those wanting a bit more backbeat, "Better Man" shows that Bridges has as much swag as anyone holding a microphone these days.
White Denim's Block and Jenkins are given co-writing credits, and there's no doubt that they have a great deal to do with the cohesive and musically true sound that is present on this recording. It'll be interesting to see whether Bridges can evolve as an artist and whether he can stand on his own two feet as his star rises. Even if he can't, he and his bandmates have managed to give us an outstanding record that pays homage to much of what's best about American music.
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