Some Songs Considered #009: Leon Bridges, Thundercat, Shamir, Donny Hathaway
Welcome to Some Songs Considered, a column that recognizes they can’t all be zingers and truly appreciates the ones that are.
Leon Bridges – Coming Home
by Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)
Leon Bridges’ new album Coming Home ended up being the winner of the Listening Party Lottery this week, so my harem of fellow music lovers and I got a great opportunity to soak up this hot new artist uninhibited and distraction-free.
For those unaware of Leon ‘Next Big Thing’ Bridges, he is a 25-year-old gospel and soul singer from Fort Worth, Texas who is currently racking up Soundcloud plays and fans of all ages across the country. He was discovered in 2014 while working as a dishwasher by White Denim’s Austin Jenkins, who helped produce Bridges’ first songs and even toured alongside him with fellow White Denim-er Justin Block. By Christmas of last year, there was a bidding war for Bridges’ talents, and he eventually ended up signing with Columbia Records.
His sound has been described as “a convincing throwback to ’60s-soul a la Otis Redding and Sam Cooke,” he performs in vintage era clothing (“polished saddle shoes, burgundy houndstooth bowling shirt with a wide collar”), and hyperbolic outlets around the world have already dubbed him as ‘primed to save soul music.’ And let’s not get it twisted, the man is very talented and the record is one of the most enjoyable things you’ll hear all summer. Plus he seems like a genuinely nice, #authentic dude:
I was writing a whole bunch of music in the beginning, and it was a lot of alternative/R&B/neo-soul-type vibes, and nothing really clicked. It was cool for a minute, but over time I just wasn’t satisfied with it. I wrote one song during that time about my mother called ‘Lisa Sawyer.’ This is before I started to pursue that old soul, and a friend of mine asked me if Sam Cooke was one of my inspirations, and I was like “no”.
I felt bad because I had never really listened to him like that. And so after that, I started digging in and listening to those sounds and started thinking, ‘This is my voice. It would be great if I wrote that type of music.’ Another thing I wanted to do was carry the torch. I just felt like I connected with it well because, me being a black man, the artists around that time with that sound were majority black men. Almost all of them. That really was a turning point.
However, until recently, my bullshit alarm has gone off whenever his name has happened across my screen or ears. Something just didn’t sit right with me, even as I very comfortably sat on couch just a few days ago listening to many people whose opinions I respect telling me what a big deal this guy was for the music industry.
Then it hit me. It’s not him, it’s us.
There’s a great passing line in the penultimate episode of Community’s third season when a guest-starring John Hodgman is trying to convince the Greendale 7 that what they believe to be true isn’t all that it seems:
“You shared this delusion with each other, like that time all those people got into swing dance music back in the 90’s.”
And I think we’re deluding ourselves again.
Yes Coming Home is a really enjoyable soul album and yes it feels like many of Leon’s fans might conceivably also stumble down a 50’s/60’s rabbit hole after being exposed to this sound, but I think we’re putting too much weight on a 25-year-old kid who is just beginning to discover what soul is.
This isn’t the same thing as when we decided it was okay a bunch of Brits named Mumford jacked the Americana sound only to ruin it for the foreseeable future, this is soul; a genre that is so much more than just nice melodies and recording-to-tape and fun outfits. The cultural history of soul and gospel is arguably more important than the music itself, and when we start comparing 25-year-old kids to all-time, game-changing artists just because they look and sound like something we’re familiar with, it’s a little irresponsible.
I think Leon can sense it too. Talking to Esquire about new fame and the constant comparisons to soul greats, he said, “I’m handling it pretty well, I’ve just got to give it 100 percent and be honest.” And he’s right. The only thing we love to do more than hype someone up is tear them down after they don’t live up to expectations, and the only defense an artist has is their integrity. I’m not saying Leon Bridges is definitely going to get musically LeBron’ed anytime soon, but when the day comes where we ask him about Jesse Belvin and he has no idea what we’re talking about, I hope we remember that it’s not his fault for him not being what we expected, it’s our fault for not enjoying this artist for who he is: a kid who just discovered soul music and who’s having a great time letting the whole world know it.
Thundercat – “Them Changes”
by Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse)
We discuss the blues in musical terms, but, as warehouse employee Darryl from The Office so helpfully explains, it’s a state of mind, something you turn to in times of personal difficulty for self-expression and its attendant comfort. There’s something to be said for getting back out there and taking on the world, but when you’re feeling shitty, sometimes the only thing to do is embrace the melancholy and feel sad for its own sake. At a certain point, wallowing only begets more wallowing, but to an extent, allowing yourself to have a good long cry can work therapeutic wonders. In a larger sociocultural context, that’s all the blues is: a good long cry, carrying the weight of centuries of mistreatment on a global scale.
There’s no shortage of reasons to feel down this week — just grab a newspaper — but on “Them Changes”, the lead single from bass virtuoso Thundercat’s upcoming album The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam, his is a private hurt. And it’s the oldest hurt of all, the immemorial hurt of a mistreated heart.
Stephen Bruner’s never been afraid to get in touch with his sensitive side; on standout Apocalypse single “Heartbreaks + Setbacks,” he extended offers for reconciliation bordering on desperation, whimpering “you know we tried / way too hard to find / a love that’s really blind / so why’d we even try?”
If time heals all wounds, it’s done nothing to fill in the cracks of Thundercat’s broken heart. He sounds just as incurably lovesick on “Them Changes”, having moved on from attempting to salvage a dying love, and now crying out for someone, anyone’s help. His heart’s beyond broken, it’s gone completely — he opens, “Nobody move / there’s blood on the floor / and I can’t find my heart”, bookending the song with “Now I’m sitting here with a black hole in my chest / a heartless, broken mess”. His blues is so blue, it’s practically black.
And yet “Them Changes” is no moan-and-groan tissue-killer. Thundercat’s not crying in the bathtub, he’s brought his pain out on the dancefloor.
With his partner in crime and Brainfeeder label mate Flying Lotus sprinkling the same producer’s fairy dust that made Apocalypse and Thundercat’s many guest spots on You’re Dead! light as a feather, the song moves. Thundercat gets the effects-laden bassline talking, and his gorgeous, silky falsetto engages it in conversation. His voice really is something special, the sort of rare tone that combines technical skill (it’s not easy, nailing all those floating high notes) with instantly identifiable character. Thundercat’s a funkman, through and through, and “Them Changes” is pure Thundercat.
by Lindsay Hogan (@LindsayHogan88)
Shamir Bailey is 20 years young.
When I went into Shamir’s show Tuesday at DC’s relatively small U Street Music Hall, I was conceptually aware of his age, mostly as a number. I was not, however, expecting to fixate on it for the 3 hours I spent at the venue.
Shamir’s rise to fame happened rather quickly. An EP recorded in his suburban Vegas bedroom, a tape sent to a producer in New York, a viral hit, “On the Regular”, and ta-da, a pop-wunderkind was conceived. He is less than a month off the release of his first album, the exhilarating and sexy Ratchet, so naturally the tone of the show was as young and jovial as his career, with the underlying excitement being that we, the audience, were on the cusp of seeing something big. But the most rewarding contrast to the hype surrounding this potential pop-royalty was Shamir Bailey’s actual presence.
I admit that between the hot Pitchfork reviews, sassy music videos, and festival slots, I’d forgotten Shamir is a relatively young dude. And that became the most endearing aspect of the show, long before he even took the stage. Lo-fi psych rockers Forever Lesbians opened at 8:00pm to a crowd of 40 modestly-interested people, with the exception of Shamir himself. After watching him bounce around excitedly in the audience, singing along and shouting requests, it became apparent that Shamir is just a kid who loves a good show, regardless of his headlining slot.
When he finally took stage, underage X displayed clearly on his left hand, I was still expecting an onslaught of sass. What I got was a humble, appreciative kid, focused on his performance… followed shortly by an onslaught of sass. His flirty attitude brought the love out of the crowd, which did not go unnoticed by Shamir. “You guys are so supportive!” he joked, untangling ear monitors from his hair after an intense bit of dancing.
But his flirty attitude was not at the expense of the show’s execution. Backed by an enthusiastic drummer, keyboardist, and additional vocalist, his already lively songs did not disappoint. And while the music off Ratchet is defined by disco-influenced, high-energy pop, his live show implied a lot more to his style than dance floor hits. Between rocking out to the opening band’s guitar riffs to covering Joyce Manor’s pop-punk “Christmas Card” half way through the set, I got the sense, with much excitement, that Shamir is going to be a fascinating dude to follow for, what I pray, is a long career.
The peak energy moments of the night came during ‘Make a Scene’ and ‘Call it Off,’ affirming his ability to command a dance party. But the other crucial highlight was his minimalist ballad, ‘Darker,’ showing off the stripped-down power of his countertenor.
His youth might be an advantage here, giving him not just vitality, but a career long enough to experiment in any number of genres. Or it might be a detriment, should he be lured by over-saturated, yet well-funded forces in the music industry. Either way, his rise to fame is inevitable. As such, his sound will change, he will become more confident, and he will play (much) bigger stages. But I saw a truly charismatic, creative and thankful kid on stage the other night. It’s not a question of whether he becomes a force in pop music, it’s a question of when. I just want Shamir to be one of the good ones.
Donny Hathaway – “Someday We’ll All Be Free”
by Julian Kimble (@JRK316)
Just as horrific news can paralyze you, music can soothe the pain. Learning of the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night left me unable to move or process what had happened; I was physically and mentally restricted for some time. I retreated to music for solace: Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” The Isley Brothers’ “Harvest for the World,” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”# and Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free.” The latter has always been unique to me because it channels one man’s struggles into subtle beauty.
The opening lyrics (“Hang on to the world as it spins around/Just don’t let the spin get you down”) are reassurance not to let life’s dizzying madness impact you negatively. Awareness of Hathaway’s troubles makes his advice tragically poignant; he was wrought with depression and schizophrenia, leading to erratic behavior, and in 1979, he died after apparently jumping from his room at New York City’s Essex House Hotel.
In my eyes, “Someday We’ll All Be Free” is Hathaway’s definitive song because he was speaking to the whole world — himself included. There’s something equal parts uplifting and devastating about someone attempting to comfort others when it’s clear they aren’t at peace. It’s part of what makes “Alright” so amazing. The legacy of “Someday We’ll All Be Free” — much like Hathaway’s — is a bright light in the darkness. It’s hard to do as he says; to “keep your stride” and “hold your head up high” given the current state of the world, but if Hathaway could try, the rest of us can.
Freedom, ironically, has a loose definition, but in the case of “Someday We’ll All Be Free”, it means relief from oppression and hate. Even if that seems unlikely in the long run, we have to keep progressing towards that hope. We have to believe that the song’s title is accurate, and that we’ll find the serenity that Donny Hathaway never found during his 33 years.
Dylann Roof committed an act of terrorism on Wednesday night. About 14 years ago, following the most devastating terrorist attack the nation has seen,# Alicia Keys performed “Someday We’ll All Be Free” during a tribute concert. Just as the world needed that support then, we need it once more.
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