Black Pumas' Psychedelic Soul Eponymous Debut

Great music doesn’t exist, nor is it created in a vacuum. It evolves from years of being influenced by composers, performers, producers and genres. We don’t reward musically mediocre derivatives; rather, we celebrate musicians who manipulate their favorite influences to create a composite that results in something new and exciting— like Black Pumas’ music.

The Austin, Texas-based group, often dubbed an “American psychedelic soul band” formed after Grammy Award winning guitarist and producer Adrian Quesada met the exceptionally talented singer, Eric Burton. After a brief time performing live, they recorded this eponymous debut album and were promptly nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy.

Immediate impressions are of a Daptone-style nu-soul/funk, but wait, there’s more. The group combines dusty vintage funk with unique kaleidoscopic mind-expansion-style songwriting and creative arrangements topped with excellent vocals. The results are dramatic but with a relaxed, “stay in the pocket” feel.

That the lyrics don’t yield an overall message or theme is part of the album’s trippy charm. Burton, credited as the lyricist, blends amorous love (“I wanna kick it with you, let’s kick it together"), inspiration and togetherness (“If you’ve got soul then you got fire”), and exercises in dreamy cloud-staring (“Show you how to dream in the sweet power of love”)—sometimes all of these elements within the same song, as they do in “Old Man” from where the above quotes are sampled. Enjoy the ride, don’t ask too many questions.

“OCT 33” mines a vein of spooky psychedelia and demonstrates the band’s far-out lyrical qualities. Burton sings, “I’ve got your number lonely October 33 / I wear it on my soul’s back like fa fa fa / And I can hear the brass ring / I hear it in the nose bleeds / Where you once felt a cold breeze / Think it was Halloween”. Float downstream, let those lyrics wash over you and interpret them as you wish. (sounds to me like “cold breeze” is audience rejection, “brass ring” is acceptance and “nose bleeds” is cheers and applause in the balcony “nose bleed” seats. “fa fa fa” probably refers to Otis Redding’s “Sad Song” but who is “Oct 33”, maybe a birthday clue? And what happened on Halloween, I’m not sure!_ed.)

“Fire” is fully realized present-day funk soul, but the chordal changes allow the piece to develop into something more. Quesada’s guitar has a jagged Costello feel here and throughout the rest of the album his playing serves an important utility role— a glue that holds together the sound while spanning several styles. Burton’s occasional acoustic playing serves as a fine counterpart to Quesada’s accommodating electric: the studio whiz and the street busker build a non-divergent guitar amalgamation. The rest of the band is also excellent. Trevor Nealon and Quesada both play keyboards; hats off to whomever is responsible for the delicious Wurlitzer keyboard parts throughout the album.

Several of the album’s tracks make good use of violin, with the strings adding a dramatic polish to this sometimes gritty affair, with clever enough arrangements that give the impression of an ensemble rather than of one person playing. It’s economical, but very effective, providing an air of mid-70s Bill Conti.

“Stay Gold” finds the band further exploring psychedelia both musically and lyrically. It’s not just Burton’s crooning vocals that conjure Jim Morrison and the Doors; creative motifs heighten what could simply be a two-chord jam into a piece of modern American rock and soul: it’s confident and contemporary with a knowing nod to the past.

The Quobuz-accessed CD quality stream sounds surprisingly good, but it’s loud and too bright. The vinyl version has better midrange detail and minus the digital version’s hard edges is more “crankable”. Purposeful breakup and distortion on Burton’s vocals make for a piquant and exciting production choice and this quality is all the more pleasing on the vinyl mastering whereas the digital master is less romantic. My copy (ATO Records ‎– ATO0503, GZ Media – 188862E), a first pressing, cream colored variant is extremely quiet, flat and clean. Since late 2019, numerous other variants of this album have been released. Currently, it will set you back around $60.00 to procure a red UK or US variant. Newbury Comics released an exclusive glow in the dark version, if you’re into that sort of thing, which - you know - why not? I’d be curious to compare the sonics on that.

Production is tight and sweaty, mixes are upfront and snug yet instrumental spacing is appropriate. Vocally, Burton is both the star of the album and an ensemble player. Upon initial spins, his vocals, hovering in an upper dead-center area of the soundstage, sell the project. But, after repeated listening, it’s evident how careful Burton was not to overreach. He’s passionate, but doesn’t eclipse the rest of the production. With his voice, he could have; perhaps he should have.

The album ends with two of its most unique songs: “Touch the Sky” and “Sweet Conversations.” Both tunes incorporate acoustic instrumentation that serve to create a welcome tension with the predominantly groove-oriented set. They may have served as a welcome palate cleanser had they been placed earlier in the album’s track list. At 10 songs and just a hair under 40 minutes there’s not too much filler on this killer record. But more funky mystery could have been created by shortening by a bit on a few songs, repeated refrains.

Surprisingly, there is some noise floor prominence in a few quieter sections. It is particularly prominent during the first few bars of “OCT 33” - and even at the very beginning of the lead off track on side 1 (“Black Moon Rising”). The 60 cycle hum serves to create an unnecessary distraction and had me checking my speaker cable connections. Quesada runs the show. His engineering and mixing are very good, Grammy good. However, a final layer of production wow and punch sheen is missing.

I’ll explain: “Old Man” is one of the record’s stronger cuts. It’s only 3:17 and in a more just world would be a summertime hit heard blasting from car windows passing by backyard bar-b-ques. The song’s final 30 seconds is a welcome and enjoyable organ riff. However, with a different mix its entry could have been a searing white-hot injection, instead of just a cool organ riff.

Black Pumas' guiding spirits are American soul, deep funk cuts, hippie psychedelia and even flashes of Gnarls Barkley. As you listen, you’ll enjoy the process of tracing the musical and production values influences. Doing so won’t make you weary that there’s no longer anything new left in music. Instead you’ll probably find that you’ll enjoy the Black Pumas on their own terms, but feel inspired to revisit some old classics waiting patiently on your shelves.

Evan Toth is a New Jersey-based songwriter, professional musician, educator, avid record collector and hi-fi aficionado. He also hosts and produces The Sharp Notes on WFDU, 89.1 FM each Saturday evening at 6pm. Follow him at the usual social media places and learn more on his website.

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Zardoz's picture

Good review. Thanks for the details. I've been on the fence about getting this one, and you have just swayed me to pull the trigger.

JoeESP9's picture

Great review. I was unaware of them. Your review piqued my interest. I have just placed it in my Amazon shopping cart.