Once in a while a vocalist comes along with an immediately distinctive voice and that is most certainly the case of the debut album from Texan Leon Bridges. What is particular and most interesting about this young soul vocalist is that both the voice and instrumentation hark back not to the 1980s, or even the classic 1970s male vocalists, but to an earlier generation from the 1960s, that of the grittier southern soul of say Muscle Shoals and the independent labels such as Goldwax on which the likes of James Carr and others thrived on consistently high quality 45s. If one singer were to be conjured up by Bridges’ voice, then it would probably have to be Sam Cooke, though there are echoes of the early David Ruffin with the Temptations also in the mix. The in-house arrangement and direction is very ably assisted by a tight band which is Bridges own and consists of piano, Hammond organ, bass and drums plus two guitars and, interestingly. virtually no brass with female backing vocals. Of interest equally and a major contribution to the overall sound is the in-house writing team of Todd Bridges, guitarist Austin Michael Jenkins, drummer Joshua Block and Chris Vivion. Influential shades of Lamont-Dozier-Holland, perhaps?
A classic retro feel permeates a song such as ‘Better Man’ and one has to pinch oneself to realise that this is 2015 and not 1965, for the neo-Motown instrumentation points firmly in that direction and a single baritone saxophone does feature on this number that complements the rasping delivery of the leader. The title track is a funkier offering that could just as easily have featured on an Amy Winehouse track from ‘Fade to Black’ with the Daptones accompanying and there is a definite nod in the voicing to Sam Cooke, with wordless ad libs that are atmospheric in tone. Doo wop flavours emerge on the minimalist instrumentation to ‘Brown Skin Girl’ while there is more of a swinging bass beat to ‘Smooth Sailin’ that is notable for some subtle female background voicing and an echoed guitar that contributes to the general eerie sound of this song.
One caveat. Given the retro 1960s influence, how will Leon Bridges progress over a series of albums? The answer may well lie in allowing the singer to hone his craft naturally and not imposing boundaries or limitations on him. However, there are already sings that he will be a leading force to be reckoned with if he continues to make this kind of progress. Texas has a rightly proud tradition of making major contributions to the soul tradition from Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland through to Erykah Badu, and if Leon Bridges continues his ascendancy on future albums and constitutes a larger canon of work, then he will surely begin to be considered as worthy of comparison with the very best. As a first release, this is an impressive start. Black and white photos on the album cover and round off the classic feel as does the classic 1960s label insignia that graced albums by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and the early Columbia sides of one Aretha Franklin.