Black Pumas (Deluxe Edition)

Black Pumas

ATO Records, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Does the world really need another act recreating classic soul and r&b sounds for a modern audience?

Fans of neo-classicists like Leon Bridges and Gary Clark Jr. would likely answer in the affirmative (says a fan of both), and devotees of Michael Kiwanuka’s more progressive take on those familiar sounds might be intrigued by the idea of exploring a musical path that begins at the feet of icons like Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, and Marvin Gaye.

Black Pumas, a collaboration between guitarist / producer Adrian Quesada and singer-songwriter Eric Burton, debuted in 2019 with this set of magnificently detailed reimaginings of classic soul and r&b style, delivering ten originals that sound fresh out of Memphis or Philly circa 1972. Producer Quesada and lyricist Burton take the warmth, precision, urgency and organic instrumentation of the era and alternately recreate and adapt it, always honoring both its passion and its integrity.

The album opens with a skittery drumroll leading into the sultry, impassioned r&b number “Back Moon Rising,” rabbit-punching guitar and Hammond topped with string accents that render the pre-chorus melody in neon, a yearning, earthy tune that Otis might have loved. “Colors” follows, strummed electric over restless drums and an intense yet melancholy lead vocal amplifying a more personal message, a slow-jam anthem celebrating sister and brotherhood in a society growing more diverse by the generation. Hammond and thoughtfully arranged female background vocals provide warmth and richness to a number that inevitably makes you wonder what kind of music Marvin might have been making in the 21st century.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

From that powerful opening, Burton and Quesada move through a series of frames that each feel both familiar and striking: the pulsing, grooving urgency of “Know You Better,” the horn-augmented push-and-pull of “Fire,” the sultry soul balladry of the nostalgic “Oct 33,” with strings adding drama. Quesada and Burton feel like a preternaturally strong match throughout, the former achieving just the mystical combination of power and subtlety on the guitar that this music requires, as Burton pours every ounce of intention and commitment he has into one riveting lead vocal performance after another.

The second half proves less memorable without ever stumbling. “Stay Gold” opens slinky before morphing like a soul-prog stew, while the lilting “Old Man” shows a sunnier side. “Confines” and Touch The Sky” bring back the What’s Going On social consciousness vibe, abetted by strings in the first case and horns in the second, before the album finishes with the notably different, mellow, almost yacht-rock-y “Sweet Conversation.”

The deluxe edition adds a second-disc grab bag of 11 bonus tracks—covers, B-sides, and live cuts, none of them revelatory, but most of them interesting for one reason or another. The main highlights are the revealing choices for opener and closer, a silvery, passionate cover of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and a steamy, urgent cover of the 1974 Bobby “Blue” Bland urban soul classic “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City.” The live-in-the-studio recordings of “Colors” and “Oct 33” only accentuate the emotional core of each song, and the intense-yet-precise in-concert rendition of “Know You Better” demonstrates how effectively these songs translate to a live setting. Finally, the Pumas’ psychedelic-soul takedown of “Eleanor Rigby” offers evidence of how little distance there is between bizarre and fascinating.

For all the familiarity of its principal approach, this album made quite the splash, earning Black Pumas the Best New Band award at the 2019 Austin Music Awards and three 2021 Grammy Award nominations (Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Best American Roots Performance). Does this represent nostalgia run wild? Not in this writer’s book. Seventy years into modern popular music there really isn’t a sound you can adopt that isn’t derivative of something, and if you’re going to choose a sound to recreate, early ’70s soul is a damned fine one.

What counts most in the end is the quality of the songs, and Black Pumas deliver tunes that are original in voice and powerful in execution, a pair of skilled craftsmen working with materials we all recognize while constructing something entirely new.

Rating: B+

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