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When I saw the cover of Leon Bridges’s debut CD, Coming Home, I thought I was looking at a compilation of tunes by a little-known regional soul singer from the 1960s whom I’d somehow missed. I expected to find a Wikipedia page that would tell me of his passionate following in England among Northern Soul fanatics. Turns out that Bridges has just turned 26, and hails from Fort Worth, Texas.
Leon Bridges has a classic southern soul voice, is deeply influenced by gospel music, and sings with remarkable honesty and emotion. His style has hints of Sam Cooke and Solomon Burke, but, like all truly great singers, Bridges has absorbed his influences, and from them has created something unique. “Twistin’ & Groovin’” is a strong nod to Cooke, but Bridges has his own cool swagger. “Brown Skin Girl” has the divine, uncluttered simplicity of Burke’s best work: the melody and singer out in front, the instrumentalists giving sympathetic, deeply felt support.
“Lisa Sawyer” tells the story of the South through the focus of its subject, Bridges’s mom. Salvation in difficult times comes from family and a baptism in the Mississippi, in New Orleans. The old-style backing vocals, notable throughout the album, help create the ’60s soul vibe -- as does the accompaniment, which reveals a deep understanding of this music. Austin Jenkins and Josh Block, of White Denim, play on Coming Home and helped produce it. If you’ve heard White Denim’s music, you’ll be as surprised as I was at how well they handle soul.
“Better Man” evokes early Motown and the Chicago productions of Carl Davis and Curtis Mayfield, while “Pull Away” reaches back to the ’50s-style R&B of Atlantic Records. “River” closes the album on a deeply affecting note, Bridges accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, and six singers providing a stirring gospel chorus. Despite its many influences, Coming Home doesn’t feel dated or derivative. It makes a strong case for soul music’s continued validity.
The album was recorded live in the studio, and the groove is deep gospel soul, with no attempt to modernize the artist. Guitarist Kenny Wayne Hollingsworth, organist Andrew Skates, among others, also make key contributions, but I’ll single out Cliff Wright’s bass lines, which echo Stax Records great Duck Dunn’s in their funky simplicity. It’s only natural that the musicians who play on Coming Home would do such an honest job -- the emotional power that Leon Bridges brings to this music demands it.
Block, Jenkins, and White Denim road manager Chris Vivion coproduced Coming Home at Niles City Sound, the recording studio they built in Fort Worth. Block and Jenkins had amassed a collection of vintage studio gear, which they used as the foundation for the studio. The sound, funky and slightly murky, probably falls short from a strictly audiophile point of view -- but one listen to the sound of Hollingsworth’s guitar bouncing off the studio walls in “Smooth Sailin’,” or Andrew Skates’s Hammond organ in “Shine,” and you won’t care.
Coming Home is also available on vinyl, and it’s the most honest, heartfelt music I’ve heard this year. I’d give it five stars, but I have the feeling that Leon Bridges will be doing even better things in the future.
. . . Joseph Taylor