Yesterday was one of those blustery March late-winter days whose oppressive grayness just makes you want to stay inside swathed in artificial heat and light. So it was with some reluctance that I dragged both myself and my girlfriend away from hearth and sunny, spring training baseball on TV to make a chilly walk down Fullerton. The only reason that I made that trek was that local record store Saki was hosting a free concert (which was recorded for download on Epitonic) by JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound whose new record I hadn't stopped listening to all weekend.
Though it had been released at the tail end of last year, I’d only given it a half-distracted perfunctory listen at first and hadn’t returned until last Thursday. I discovered the group a couple of years ago, like so many others, via their brassy soul cover of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, which is downright irresistible. I went on to see them live in a variety of settings, including an impressive set in front of a sold-out Metro crowd opening for The Dismemberment Plan. I also got their first album Beat Of Our Own Drum, which had some great songs and a fun garagey-soul sound but couldn’t match either the charm or accomplishment of their live show.
Let there be no mistake, Want More, their second album and first on Chicago alt-country/folk/freak label Bloodshot Records, proves that JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound are no less accomplished in the studio than on the stage. The album takes a songbook-style to soul and R&B history which highlights the band’s versatility and shows the breadth of inspiration and expertise that seeps through their pores onstage and the grooves on record. That reverence and developed intuition for the music is important, as JC & co. are, like Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, a group of reverent white boys fronted by a charismatic black front person and singer. The British have long ago proved that skinny white boys can do great things by aping and appropriating black musical mojo but especially in America, it’s still a cultural tightrope act fraught with potential pitfalls that should generally be attempted either well or not at all.
There are two artists whose specters hang heavily over Want More both stylistically and spiritually. Keyboardist Alex Hall has clearly listened to more than his fair share of Ray Charles over the years and his electric piano channels Charles’ both in its sound and versatility (remember, that Charles was famous for his country and western covers in the 50’s and early 60’s). “Sister Ray Charles” makes this connection explicitly and, although it packs a classic keyboard lead, it’s played over a shaggy dog story that seems half Spoon, half Lou Reed. Throughout the album Hall’s keys gives songs slinky appeal and an air of understated cool.
The other obvious musical and lyrical touch point for Want More is Sam Cooke. Anyone who's heard Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963 knows that Cooke was a dynamo on stage, playing with the audience and his own songs, traits that Brooks has soaked up like mother’s milk. Cooke also had a genius for melding classic soul and pop elements and Brooks and the boys show off similar talents in “Don’t Lock The Door” which has the pop lyricism and light swing of one of Sam’s early singles. Of course Cooke was also a social observer and could be a pointed songwriter, something Brooks does throughout the record but most especially on “Awake”, the album’s surprisingly successful “A Change Is Gonna Come” homage. The album closer has its foot planted firmly in the Civil Rights songwriting tradition, with its nod to standard “This Train Is Bound For Glory” and the chorus reminding us to remain “awake in a great revolution.” Brooks acknowledged its activist lineage saying that the song “is, was and always will be dedicated to Howard Zinn and Martin Luther King.”
Elsewhere on the album the band spreads its stylistic wings. The triumphant soul reconstruction of Wilco’s electro folk has lost no appeal since 2010 and shows Brooks and Co. aren't just reheating classic sounds. Elsewhere The Uptown Sound try their hand at everything from feel good beach music (“I Got High”), to silky AM slow-jamz (“To Love Someone (Who Don’t Love You)”), to early (“Baadnews”) and late (“I Can See Everything) 70’s funk. The title track has the energy of a blues lament and “Everything Will Be Fine” has the horn-filled bounciness of a mid-60’s Memphis session jam. One final song also stands out, the breakup ballad “Missing You”. From the first lick of the Band-aping acoustic intro to airy backing vocals to the weepy steel guitar to the unshakeable chorus, it’s clear upon first listen that this is a tear-jerker with the depth and reply value that could unite Motown-era boomers and hipsters to Adele-loving twenty somethings alike.
As I waited around in Saki for the band to set up, it was an endearing scene, bearded music nerds (yo), harried but fun-loving parents with toddlers and a couple that looked nearer legal retirement age than the half-century mark who had all schlepped to west Logan Square at 4:30 on an unfriendly March Sunday afternoon to sip some Half Acres or Finch’s, flip through some 45’s and get themselves a little soul. The band played sans horns with touring keys man Andy Rosenstein on the store’s acoustic piano. After warming up with Beat of Our Own Drum’s title track, JC and The Uptown Sound burned through “Want More”, IATTBYH and finally “Awake”, seemingly getting stronger with each song. It was an impressive showcase that made me salivate about the band playing summer street fests around town and making a name for itself outside the city. They then announced that they’d be closing with a song so new this was only its third public performance. It was a soul ballad with slow-building guitar and piano parts that sounded just ripe for a full-band blowup.
Want More is a record with the punch and staying power to put JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound on the national stage. The best part is that with two records in two years and more material in the pipeline, the group looks ready and able to turn that possibility into reality.