Leon Bridges

With fame fleeting and lucrative ideas always ripe for imitators, the music business is perpetually looking for the “next” somebody. The best example is the neverending “next” Dylan sweepstakes. Springsteen grabbed that title for a minute as did Steve Forbert, Willie Nile and many others. Now along comes Leon Bridges who, it’s being whispered, is the “next” Sam Cooke. At this year’s South by Southwest music extravaganza in Austin he was the act to see. Every one of his shows was packed. And his debut album, Coming Home and its newly released single of the same name were the talk of the entire event.

Given that hype mountain, it was probably inevitable that Bridges first record would be a disappointment. His voice, arrangements, reverb, female background vocal choruses, and the soul-music-from-a-voice-trained-in-church all recall the late, great Cooke. Yet like the rest of humanity, Bridges will never even approach the smooth delivery or impassioned soul of Sam Cooke. He was after all, a very special, one-of-a-kind performer. But the younger singer is cannily using the Cooke comparisons to his advantage. The Fort Worth-bred Bridges, given name Todd, dresses the part of a Sixties crooner in shiny shoes, stovepipe pants and turtleneck sweaters. His single, “Coming Home” floats along on verses that have the feel of something the “A Change Is Gonna Come” singer might have cut in a demo session. And while it features a very unCooke-like slide guitar solo in the middle, “Twistin’ and Groovin’,” is a bit of a nod, at least semantically, to “Twistin’ The Night Away.”

For those in touch with the indie retro soul (or perhaps neo-soul, though that’s another bag in many ways) of labels like Brooklyn’s Daptone Records, this 34-minute long major label release will have a familiar ring. Bridges is young and has much to learn about songwriting in particular. Endings seem to be a big problem in his songs. A promising number like the saxophone-spiced, soul belter, “Better Man” where Bridges “would swim the Mississippi River” if his beloved would give him “another start,” needs to do more at its close than simply stop. Perhaps this was a production issue, but either way, time and seasoning will fix those kinds of rough spots. Very cool to the ears, as opposed to hot-blooded and/or blue, Coming Home is still a promising start to what could become a fascinating career to come.

dalethorn's picture

I bought it, and that's a one-in-thirty for me. So I think this guy's pretty good, and I hope he gets the best promotion that's available.

ednazarko's picture

I really like the album, although all the "next Sam Cooke" hype set poor Leon up for a fall. First couple times I listened I couldn't shake measuring him against the hype, to the point of wondering why I bought the album. Now that I've purged that garbage from my head, I do enjoy the album, although it's not top of my listening rotation.

In absolute stark contrast, Jamison Ross' debut album came with only whispers of "guy's pretty good" and completely blew me (and everyone I know) away. I bought Leon's album and Jamison's album at the same time, which really highlighted the difference. I don't know what Jamison's "the next" of, but I think he's exceptional - exceptional drummer and exceptional singer. (I also picked up Sam Cooke Live at the Copa in the same buy... which definitively killed the "next Sam Cooke" label for Leon.)

Great that Leon got such a launch at SXSW, shame that Jamison's tagged with "jazz" so if he's really successful, he'll be able to afford buying groceries at Whole Foods... once.

taperpowell's picture

I've been listening to the new Leon Bridges album online lately, because I like it and I'm trying to figure out what format of the album to buy. My difficulty there is that while I listen to a lot of vinyl, I don't buy new vinyl because if the point is for the signal to be analog, new vinyls pressed from a digital master defeat the purpose as far as I'm concerned, especially for the cost. I've read that "Coming Home" was recorded to tape on vintage analog equipment, so I'd buy this new on vinyl if I knew it was sourced from the analog master; but if it's just a vinyl dub from the same digital master that made the CD, I may as well save ten bucks and buy the CD, then rip that down to MP3 myself for use on a media player if I like.

But the format decision (not as daunting as it is merely annoying) is brought about by the fact that I really do like his sound, so I want the record. However, I'm mystified by the constant comparison to Sam Cooke that appears in every other review. Really? I've already divulged that I listen to old vinyl, so let me go on to say that it includes a lot of '60's soul, primarily Memphis-area but also Detroit and LA, and I don't pick up Sam Cooke much at all in this album. Leon Bridges sounds like Leon Bridges to me -- and that's no insult, it's a good thing. Stylistically he doesn't sound like Sam Cooke, or Otis, Johnnie Taylor, David Ruffin, Isaac, Al Green, Smokey, Eddie Floyd, Stevie, Syl Johnson, O.C. Smith, Marvin Gaye, or anybody but Leon Bridges. If I had to compare him to anyone, I would say William Bell, not because he sounds like Bell but because he is a smoother soul singer, more of a crooner than a shouter, and he likes to keep the lyrics clean like Bell. But Leon Bridges is his own man.

Is it his freshman effort? Sure. Could his songwriting use a little more polish? Certainly. But if he continues in this direction as an artist, I'll be waiting for his next albums eagerly. He's got a great sound, and to me it's authentic without being a throwback...it sounds like this is really who he is right now, he's not trying to sound like something classic/vintage/retro (or whatever) because it's trendy to mimic an earlier era. I like some of the Daptone output, I like some of the Truth & Soul label stuff, I like Amy Winehouse, but they all put a newer spin on soul than Leon does. Since I like to listen at home with children around, I appreciate that he's not imposing a 2015 sensibility on the lyrics over a 1967 music bed. That's not true of some of the modern 'retro-soul'.

I just became aware of another new artist, Jamison Ross. I'd like to get his record too, and that probably means CD...I've not heard anything about his original master being analog. But as I listen to Jamison, I definitely hear his debt to Stevie Wonder as an influence on his vocal style much more than I hear Sam Cooke in Leon Bridges. But why do we have to compare new artists with the older ones at all? Why the hangup to label any new guy on the scene as the "NEXT-(someone who used to be on the scene)"? I'd rather just enjoy the new music that comes along for what it is, and the new artist for who they are...if they're good.

It's my opinion, so take that for what it's worth (but it's worth as much as anyone else's on the web), that Leon Bridges has enough potential to become a great soul singer in his own right if he keeps going. I'm waiting to see what he does next.