Release Date: June 23, 2015
“Twistin’ time was here once,” proclaimed an Onion writer a little over a year ago, referencing the world’s need for a new song about the signature dance move first popularized in the late 1950s. “It can be here again.”
It is — kind of, thanks to Texas soul man Leon Bridges. Even if it’s too slow to actually twist to, the singer’s electric guitar-lickin’ juke joint “Twistin’ and Groovin'” — off of his sterling debut LP, Coming Home — comes close enough; if by mere virtue of being the only song this year to reference in some capacity Sam Cooke’s “Twistin’ the Night Away” or the Isley Brothers’ cover of “Twist and Shout.” As it turns out, Bridges wondered the same thing: After a friend recommended he listen to Cooke following a lifetime of favoring Usher and Dru Hill, he realized, “Why aren’t there any other young black men making this kind of music?” (Perhaps, despite his Pandora deep-dive, he didn’t find out about Black Messiah or that Al Green is still alive.)
The increasing visibility of white soul (and other genre-specific) artists over their black peers has been well-documented. But musicians like Soul Power singer Curtis Harding, R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq, and experimental soulster Cody ChestnuTT — not including equally talented white singers like Nick Waterhouse and Mayer Hawthorne — are young black artists making “this kind of music.” That’s not at all to minimize Bridges’ coast-to-coast sold-out shows and the critical and popular adulation he’s been receiving for his talented adherence to the stylistic and aesthetic constraints of his chosen inspirations. Of course, none of these background conversations are the first things to come to mind while listening to a swaying, sax-burning charmer like “Better Man,” which soon leads to closed-eyes humming and possibly swinging around your baby in a pencil skirt.
That’s the beauty of Coming Home, which sealed its retro mixture of polish and grit at the Forth Worth studio run by members of fiercely quirky, genre-bending trio White Denim, who had a fateful run-in with Bridges at a local bar. Sure, the ten-track effort may transcend thorny issues like countless Billboard chart re-brandings over the decades — but what it does best is address the simple lament of not having anything to twist to in too long.
For someone who picked up the guitar just four years ago and discovered his more recent inspirations shortly before that, Bridges nails the audacious ’60s affectation. The drum-brushed snare claps, ooh-ooh-oohs, and lyrics like “groovy-lipped baby” on “Brown Skin Girl”; the tambourine and tentative horn teases on “Smooth Sailing”; and the warm (if paint-by-numbers) organ on “Shine” sound as if these Coming Home cuts had been discovered in a stack of dust-coated 45s in a shuttered Los Angeles recording studio. Even the album art, featuring Bridges seemingly captured mid-jaunt against a brilliantly red wall, emulates some iconic sleeves of that period.
The only downside of such a musically (and sartorially) cultivated persona — a term that isn’t even entirely fair to Bridges, as the lilting “Lisa Sawyer” is about his grandmother “with the complexion of sweet praline” in New Orleans — is that it can be monochromatic. It’s completely possible, even probable, that as he grows as an artist, he’ll grow more comfortable in his resurrected genre that nonetheless already comes very easily to him. If Cooke saw the more “experimental” label he founded, SAR Records, as an outlet for burgeoning soul artists (label co-founder J.W. Alexander even displayed the same attention to “young black artists” that Bridges did), then surely a Texan 25-year-old with his whole twistin’ and groovin’ career ahead of him will do the same.