Release Date: Jun 23, 2015
Record label: Columbia
Genre(s): R&B, Soul
There’s a reason why this music was popular. It makes you twist. It makes you groove—in glee and in sync with the pulsing rhythms. It makes you yearn and feel and long. There’s a reason why this music is coming back today. It makes you think. It makes you escape—from the workingman and ….
The question with Leon Bridges is authenticity, and the Fort Worth, Texas singer-songwriter/musician exonerates himself nicely with major label debut record Coming Home. Nowhere near as organic as a Raphael Saadiq — but not as one-dimensional as a Ricky Fanté — Bridges brings ten tracks to the table that feel fresh despite being decidedly retro. While being perfectly primed and tailored for Starbucks playlists, Bridges delivers his soul revivalist vibe earnestly and honestly; cynics might note that the White Denim-backed artist with the Sam Cooke visual/aural aesthetic and vintage live analogue studio sound strains belief — Would a 25-year old unironically immerse himself into this music? — but the proof is in the album.
Searching for the still small voice that dwelt within the soul of early rock and roll can be a thankless task. People treasure moments like Elvis and his swiveling hips, Chuck and his duck walk, Jerry Lee literally setting his piano on fire, et cetera, but the quiet moments of the era seem to be forgotten. Audiences at the time perceived gems like The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, Lenny Welch’s “Since I Don’t Have You”, Tommy Edwards’ “It’s All in the Game” as real rock, despite the fact that they weren’t loud, lively, or had a pounding 4/4 beat.
It certainly looks as though Texan newcomer Leon Bridges was incubated in some major-label laboratory. Retro soul is some of the most profitable material currently being exported, and the 25-year-old seems precision-engineered, having emerged suddenly in just-so trousers, with a voice that echoes Sam Cooke’s. The 10 songs of his debut are unabashedly old-school: romantic, easygoing, some fast, some slow; pitched at a market that seems insatiable when it comes to the comfort of music that harks back to a simpler age.
‘Coming Home’ exists in a satin-swathed timewarp that takes you back 55 years. Texan singer Leon Bridges’ debt to the warmth of soul pioneer Sam Cooke is evident in every tune on a debut album where even the stylish artwork acts as an unreconstructed envoy to a 1960 dependent on daiquiris and dinner dances. Produced by White Denim members Josh Block and Austin Jenkins – Jenkins met former busboy Bridges in a Fort Worth dive bar last year and the pair bonded over vintage jeans – the album boasts a host of local session stars.
In addition to opening for Lord Huron, Leon Bridges’ recent stop in Chicago included a performance at the iconic Green Mill, a jazz club that dates back to 1907 and still houses Al Capone’s favorite booth. Seeing Bridges play his retro soul in that vintage space held an immediate allure; I wanted to dress up in my best coat and tie, walk under that marquee, and let Bridges’ sateen vocals and melodies whisk me back to the ’60s. Two things stood in the way.
“Twistin’ time was here once,” proclaimed an Onion writer a little over a year ago, referencing the world’s need for a new song about the signature dance move first popularized in the late 1950s. “It can be here again. ” It is — kind of, thanks to Texas soul man Leon Bridges.
Leon Bridges, a 25-year-old Fort Worth native with a golden voice, is wholly comfortable living in the past. His Columbia debut Coming Home deftly recalls all the well-bronzed giants of soul—your Aretha, your Otis, and especially, in Bridges' case, Sam Cooke. This kind of soul revival, brought over the last decade by places like Daptone Records and artists like the Alabama Shakes, the late Amy Winehouse and others, has been almost universally embraced by (mostly older, white) music fans.
Leon Bridges is a throwback to the days when guys did things like "swim the Mississippi" to impress their dates ("Better Man"). But this retro-soul man doesn't have to work so hard to win you over on his debut LP: His smooth, Sam Cooke-esque croon makes Coming Home the best kind of nostalgia trip. Tunes like the tender title track dance right back to the late Fifties, and album closer "River" is a gospel-blues testimony that runs deep.
If multi million-selling soul successes were conceived from thin air, dreamt up by the most ambitious of label heads, they might not arrive more attuned or ready for world domination than Leon Bridges. Out of the blue, his ‘Coming Home’ debut arrives just months after his initial discovery. It started in a smoky Fort Worth bar, where he bumped into two members Texas thrashers White Denim, Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, who’ve since become so obsessed they produced his first record.
It's difficult to imagine a 1963 Columbia release from an artist whose look and sound echo 1911. In 2015, however, the thought of a young artist seemingly transported from a bygone era -- 52 years prior, to be exact -- requires no imagination whatsoever. Here's Leon Bridges. He was born in 1989 ….
Earlier this year, Leon Bridges explained his love of vintage soul music in a way that made it seem like it borders on the obsessive. “I became so fascinated with that sound I wanted to recreate it exactly,” he said. In many ways he has achieved his aim: Coming Home, which has clocked up more than 1m YouTube views, sounds like a long-lost soul standard, recorded with era-stamped crackle.
It's not surprising that Columbia would put its money behind the debut album by Texan soul singer Leon Bridges: retro R&B is a sound that sells well to both boomers and millennials, and traditionalist rock critics piss their pants with excitement at any young act going this route. What is a shock is just how perfectly Bridges nails the Sam Cooke sound he unapologetically set out to replicate, and that his own personality and magnetic charisma still shine through the sonic costume he's chosen. Cooke is the most obvious reference point, but there are also echoes of early Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Otis Redding.
The Texas-based soul singer Leon Bridges has released one of the year’s most compelling debuts, in part because its 10 songs sound like they could have been rescued from a Rock-Ola that hadn’t been plugged in for half a century. But his richly contoured, slightly raspy voice and the production work of Austin Jenkins and Josh Block (of the scruffy Texan rockers White Denim) give the album heft. “Coming Home” has the dry-brushed feel of old 45s, eschewing modern attempts to smooth away the rough edges that cause other neo-soul artists to sound just a bit too “neo.
Live, Leon Bridges' voice hasn't broken. Ft. Worth's 25-year-old soul sensation registers m-a-n, of course, recalling no less than Sam Cooke in high-waisted pants and croon, but the cracks and pops in his otherwise porcelain delivery befit a late-Fifties 78 rather than the digital tabula rasa of the 21st century. On disc, major label bow and overall ground-zero debut Coming Home, that peach fuzz around the edges retros back to the future faster than a DeLorean time machine.
The history of Leon Bridges illuminates much about contemporary soul music. He is a black artist from the South, “discovered” by established white rockers, Austin Jenkins and Josh Block of White Denim. His classic brand of doo-wop, soul, and gospel is being touted as a “revolution.” But what does Leon Bridges do that sounds so new? What does he bring that makes old feel contemporary? The answer, for better or worse, is very little.