The power of nostalgia drives many aspects of the music industry these days, from classic rock radio stations and the perennial biopic, to the continued success of Greta Van Fleet. For anyone who appreciates a certain era of music, it can be tempting to want to hear a young band take on old trends, perform it live, and breathe new life into something from the past. There will always be musicians like this; those who run reactionary to the experimental luminaries of today, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make good music. The debut album from Austin, Texas band Black Pumas is not groundbreaking, but it does have a genuine soul sound and is a solid outing from a group that is selling more than just nostalgia.
Black Pumas came together just last year when multi-instrumentalist and producer Adrian Quesada met singer-guitarist Eric Burton. Quesada is not someone obsessed with soul music or even known for having any revivalist tendencies, instead, he has spent the last twenty years bringing the Latin and Tex-Mex music of Austin to the world – and even won a Grammy in the process. Eric Burton on the other hand, has come from relative obscurity. Burton grew up in the San Fernando Valley, singing in church and busking on street corners and the Santa Monica pier where he would routinely rake in hundreds of dollars. In 2015, he decided to move to Austin to try his hand at the burgeoning music scene, where he came to the attention of Quesada and eventually recorded him a demo on his phone. Burton certainly sounds like someone who had been singing on the street, he is captivating and has the pent-up soul and the strain of a more seasoned veteran, to the point it’s hard to believe Burton is only 27. He’s the best part of Black Pumas as well, regardless of the strength of the song; he sells it adding gravitas to Quesada’s work without taking up too much room.
Throughout Black Pumas, Quesada creates a layered production that acts as a counterweight to Burton’s lofty voice. “Colors”, the second track here, lets Burton bring out an Al Green affectation and ad-lib on the chorus while Quesada supports the song with a stately organ, a piano solo and even backup singers that help underpin the song’s family theme.
On the opener, “Black Moon Rising”, Burton sounds a little more like CeeLo Green, singing sultrily over drums and guitar that are more akin to a borrowed Black Keys song. Quesada goes further and employs a string section that manages to distance itself from all those comparisons at the same time. But for all the retro soul flirtations in Black Pumas, Quesada and Burton try to maintain a modern audience.
The twinkling piano keys and Burton’s staccato guitar on “Know You Better” are an Alabama Shakes trademark, while “Touch the Sky” has an impressive horn section that seems antiquated until an acoustic guitar finds its way out of the mix in a call-and-response manner. By the end of the track, the instrumentation builds towards a nice crescendo that solidifies its quiet-loud dynamics.
The softer songs here have their moments of distinction too. “OCT 33” has some nice arrangements and a light percussion that carries throughout but it’s the extended break towards the end where all the different pieces begin to coalesce that it guides effortlessly. “Stay Gold” on the other hand seems at first to be a bit too effortless, with Burton’s delivery a bit sing-songy, but the chirpy chorus and backing vocals help to make it memorable.
The Last track “Sweet Conversations” manages to abandon any strong soul influence in favour of a trotting, almost country detour. It is a catchy and distinct moment on Black Pumas and demonstrates the power of Burton and Quesada’s collaboration while providing proof of the versatility they can have.
There are plenty of albums out there that have the flavouring of Black Pumas, but very few have the talent of Burton and Quesada to back them up. Throughout the record, Burton gives stellar performance after performance to make whatever track he is given as compelling and interesting as it can be, while Quesada’s production is so lush that you can expect to hear something new each time you listen to it. The only real weakness is on the strength of the songs themselves, which can easily be attributed to the short time Black Pumas have been collaborating.
Once Burton and Quesada are writing and contributing in equal measure, the chemistry they have already demonstrated can only guarantee a more impressive follow-up. Beyond the great performances, what’s great about Black Pumas is that it manages to pull from its older influences as equally as it pulls from its contemporaries. Where you can hear The Black Keys or St. Paul & the Broken Bones, you can also hear Bill Withers and Al Green. But Burton and Quesada are more genuine than just the sum of those parts, and while the band manages to make music that is celebratory of its influences, they are able to develop a personality of their own as well.