One of our favorite Chicago Soul acts has returned with a defining work.
Bloodshot Records, 2013
8.0 / 10.0
Last year we covered Chicago’s neo-soul outfit JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound with their last LP release Want More. At the time, my largest complaint with the group was that they just didn’t seem to be trying hard enough to step out of the massive shadow of soul giants like Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett to make something entirely their own. In December 2012, the band holed up at Hotel2Tango Studio in Montreal to work with producer Howard Bilerman (Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Godspeed You! Black Emperor). This result is their newest effort, Howl and with it a marked movement away from what one would expect from JC and the boys and I believe it paid off in spades. This new record finally has songwriter Brooks stepping out with a collection of songs that only he could write. Even better, JC is letting the band explore more musically than they were able on that last album, making Howl an absolutely worthwhile listen from beginning to end.
From the get, JC’s performance seems more determined and inspired on the album’s title track. Brooks doesn’t exactly have the kind of virtuaoso vocal that some of his heroes could boast. What he’s doing here is playing more to subtlely with each lyric and it leads to a much more interesting product. Tracks like “Cold”, “These Things”, and “Control” bring the band well out of the expected R&B sound and into their own. As a result, I believe these are the best songs the group has ever made. Part of the strength here comes from the fact that this transition in sound doesn’t seem wacky or forceful. Brooks is selling hard on this being a serious attempt and I’m buying nearly all of it. With the band playing around him a bit looser than they were on Want More, the whole thing feels more like a live performance, maybe actually bringing these songs a little bit closer to that Chicago soul heritage.
So-called ‘heritage’ acts tend to be a critical slow pitch. No one really hates them, but you also rarely see their music getting the kind of end-of-year attention reserved for the world shakers. With Howl, I believe JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound have put themselves into a category that could change that. The songs here are more than retro kitsch. This is the result of a seriously good songwriter and a band that seems to finally know their own place in the world. JC Brooks isn’t ever going to be Sam Cooke. But, I think he’s fine with that. We’re all better off that he is.
Purchase JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound’s Howl