DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Growing up in Fort Worth, Tex., Leon Bridges started out listening to and making hip-hop music. But the singer, who's in his mid-20s, went through a change a few years ago, connecting to R&B music from the past and challenging himself to give it a contemporary sound. You can hear the results on his major label debut, "Coming Home." Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOOTH SAILIN'")
LEON BRIDGES: (Singing) Over the horizon, she's smooth sailin' these concrete seas. Now she's headed east down the boulevard. Sugar,
said I like the way, said I like the way you sail your ship down. Let me be your cargo. I won't wear you down. No, honey, I won't wear you down.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Leon Bridges most often sings in a calm, conversational style. He doesn't possess a big voice or even a particularly smooth one. But it's the grainy tone and his straightforward phrasing that helps render his music contemporary, of-the-moment. You have no trouble believing this young man is as familiar with the spoken words of hip-hop as he is with the crooning of Motown soul on a song such as "Better Man."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER MAN")
BRIDGES: (Singing) I don't want much. I just want to be a better man to my baby, mhmm. Meet me off good luck. I was singing with them Jezebels under perfume sheets. Got a golden smile, heart overflow. Got us in love, but it wasn't enough. What can I do? What can I do to get back to your heart? I'd swim the Mississippi river if you would give me another start, girl.
TUCKER: One of the traditions Bridges revives on his album "Coming Home" is that of the wounded lover man, a sensitive soul who's not afraid to admit how much a woman can hurt him. A song such as "Pull Away" is a dream of a melody with a lyric that details a nightmare, a lover who's put a knife in his back romantically speaking. Bridges isn't so macho that he avoids admitting his pillow is soaked with tears.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PULL AWAY")
BRIDGES: (Singing) Oh, girl, it's been so long. I want to pull away from you. It's been too long. I want to walk away right now. I thought that our love was true. But all along I was wrong. My pillow bears the tears of a man in pain. Our love, I thought I could sustain. Don't worry about me anymore 'cause I'll be gone by the morning tide.
TUCKER: Throughout "Coming Home," Leon Bridges is working with Josh Block and Austin Jenkins of the Texas roots rock band White Denim. They helped him build a group of various southern musicians that can execute Bridges' variations on Motown and Stax Records soul and his forays into Memphis and New Orleans rock and roll, such as "Twistin' and Groovin'."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TWISTIN' AND GROOVIN'")
BRIDGES: (Singing) I got a call from my baby, said she fed up with me. Said she's found another lover in another city. Said she's doing fine in New Orleans. Now she's got me pacing, wondering where'd I go wrong. Got me going in circles, like the merry-go-round. Going to take the west train to Louisiana in the morning.
TUCKER: Given that Bridges is making music that was popular when his mother was a girl, it's not surprising that one of his best songs is a vividly imagined sketch of that woman, a tune called "Lisa Sawyer." It details her difficult upbringing, her, quote, "complexion of a sweet praline," and what Bridges remembers as a mother who raised him in love. This picture is framed within a very pretty, medium-tempo ballad.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LISA SAWYER")
BRIDGES: (Singing) She was born in New Orleans, New Orleans, Louisiana, branded with the name Lisa Sawyer circa 1963. Grandmother was Indian, Indian. Her mother's name was Eartha, swift as the wind, fierce as fire. Her father's name was Victor, worked two jobs to provide for his flock.
TUCKER: The challenge in making music like this is that it risks coming off as a mere exercise in style and nostalgia. To some extent, Bridges indulges in this. In performance and in videos, for example, Bridges dresses as though he's raided the closet of a snazzy dad or uncle. But when it comes to the music, Bridges bares down hard on the ideas and emotions in his songs. Hearing how present he is in experiencing his joy and pain, you realize there's no way he's living in the past.
DAVIES: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Coming Home," the new album by Leon Bridges. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.