Album Review: Howl by JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound
Very Good, Based on 7 Critics
NOW Magazine - 80 Based on rating 4/5
Howl is a sensible name for JC Brooks & Co.'s third album. The man can sing. If things don't work out for the Chicago quintet (I think they will), he'd make an excellent Collins in a Broadway presentation of Rent. Sometimes his controlled, highly trained vocals slip into an Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations-like falsetto, and that's special, too.
The back cover of Howl pictures a young black man propped against the railing of a bridge. He’s clad in geek-chic Buddy Holly glasses and “vintage” French t-shirt for the “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” single. His hands are shoved deep into his pockets and his face is tinged with the overly-telegraphed melancholy of someone yearning for a level ennui that they’ve not yet actually earned.
Things get personal on Howl, the third album from JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. While R&B has always been a root sound for the band, this time out they turn down the funk and replace it with a balance of retro soul and classic pop/rock. The theme on the recording, and most of its songs, addresses the subject of modern love and desire and its aftermath, albeit from many different angles.
JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound are doing that thing the people always say they want bands to do—that thing where a band transforms their early, almost literal take on retro-minded soul music into a sound that’s unique and modern. Sure, people say, it’s great for a band to be able to capture the fire and energy of ‘60s R&B, but it would be even better if they could utilize that force as a catalyst for something that’s not so explicitly nostalgic. Well, here you go: Howl finds the pompadoured Brooks leading his band away from the jump-and-whoop soul-shout revue style of their earlier works (namely their by-the-book-but-oh-so-slamming debut) and into a less stylized space that brings in gentle indie-pop touches, slick balladry and middle-of-the-road rock influences.
The rise of Daptone Records has done much to further the cause of soul musicians everywhere, yet it's understandable that the label's commitment to vintage sounds isn't the approach everyone is comfortable with. Case in point is Chicago, IL's JC Brooks, who on this follow-up to 2011's Want More, made the unconventional move of hooking up with Arcade Fire/Wolf Parade producer Howard Bilerman at his Hotel2Tango studio in Montreal. The results are a sleek and, at times, powerful combination of old and new, with strong echoes of Al Green's classic Hi Records sound.
Want to know what’s weighing on JC Brooks’ mind? The cover of Howl, his third record with the Uptown Sound, tells the tale. It’s in his distant-but-pensive stare and the warm spotlight that shines over his face. Howl, in the simplest terms, is a rebound record, one that finds the singer mourning the end of a fractured relationship but also celebrating his return to the wild.
Howl, the third album from Chicago's JC Brooks, is a deliberate departure from the throwback R&B of previous efforts, a raw, heart-on-the-sleeve breakup album every bit as indie rock and punk as it is soul, which turns out to be as much a detriment as the album's strength. "Not Alone" best embodies the band's self-described "post-punk soul," but the song lacks musical conviction and ends up out of place sandwiched between the disco-funk rollerskating jam "Before You Die" and stripped down Memphis soul of "River," a Stax-style ballad with obvious shades of Otis Redding. Rocking an Afro-pompadour, Brooks is a former stage actor with a flair for the dramatic.