JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound - Howl
Record Label: Bloodshot
Release Date: May 21, 2013
While plenty of journalists found a lot to like on their Bloodshot debut Want More, this writer was a bit more skeptical of Chicago's J.C. Brooks & the Uptown Sound. But on Howl, the band have taken a huge step forward and crafted arguably their strongest work to date.
The disc opens with the title track, a roadhouse romp that hearkens back to fifty years prior. The song is even, steady and indubitably bouncy. Try not shaking your ass, just try it. That last line is pretty much the mantra for much of Howl. While the title track is a serviceable opening, it is far from the album's best, which its successor "Married for a Week," quickly proves. Over a rising organ, Brooks and Co. gently glide with an effortlessness that is undeniably magnetic. Ostensibly a snarky kiss-off, the song hits at what makes Brooks and his band so darn compelling: first-rate guitar licks, an air-tight rhythm section, enveloping keys, and Brooks' commanding vocals.
The falsetto-driven "Rouse Yourself" is a smooth and slick slice of mid-tempo that allows Brooks' vocals to dance circles around his competition. If this isn't a love making song, Lord knows what is. The falsetto returns on "Security," arguably one of Howl's most accessible efforts. Buttressed by a sturdy chorus and skittering guitars it is without a doubt one of 2013's best. While "Rouse Yourself" has been chosen as the lead single, "Security" seems like a much better choice to further the band's audience. Soft and cooing, there's a magnetism about the song that you just can't force.
Howl's first half concludes with "Ordinary," a nuanced effort that seems more about tone and feel than message and melody. If "Ordinary" proves anything it's that The Uptown Sound are a crop of staggeringly talented musicians. Though this kind of song probably has no crossover appeal, it has a panache and a zest that just isn't being made anymore.
The second half of Howl opens with the jaunty "Before You Die," an old-school, jittery and jaunty effort that bops and weaves like Phil Collins' ubiquitous 80s hit "Sussudio." Though it is far from being that catchy, there's still something sun-drenched and summery about every passing second. On "Not Alone" Brooks pretty much takes over, consuming the song and furthering not only his sterling vocals but his charismatic presence as a frontman. In many ways, "Not Alone" is practically inviting the listener to rush out and buy tickets for one of the band's concerts.
Having gone a few songs without a torch ballad, the band puts that to rest quickly on the slow-burner "River," an absolutely tremendous piano-driven effort that should arguably be one of the band's next singles and one of the first songs from Howl to propel the band towards hordes of new fans.
Not content to kick things back up again, Brooks and Co. offer up the stark piano affair "Cold," a song that feels eerily kin to something on a Broadway stage. That last comment is not meant to diminish or belittle the song, it just sort of has an appeal that seems like it might be a contender for the Tonys. That being written, Brooks has a towering instrument of a voice and nowhere is that more apparent than on "Cold."
Howl closes with the guitar-driven "Control" a fiery flare-up that has a firecracker of an ending, and the lingering and long-lasting "These Things," a hook-driven slice of old-school R&B with a rising organ that echos long after the song winds to a close.
Whereas 2011's Want More felt uneven, Howl is dynamic, controlled and with few, if any holes. While old school R&B and indie soul is indeed making a surging comeback, most of the vocalists are decidedly female. Brooks and the Uptown Sound's place in the current landscape makes them that much more important, and if they keep churning out albums like Howl, they'll find their way in the national spotlight.