Leon Bridges - Better Man
- Better Man -
I don't want much
I just wanna be a better man
To my baby
Apart from being a gorgeous song and an incredible performance, the most astonishing thing about this piece (and the whole record Coming Home) is that it was NOT recorded in 1957. It's wild to believe that Leon Bridges' first record was released last year in June of 2015. Knowing that this kind of talent is contemporary is a testament that great music can still make it in the modern era. We'll dig into that shortly, but lets take a moment to dote on how much this song doesn't suck. (I also want to warn you that where the recording of this album is so unique, this breakdown is going to get a little gear-slutty pretty quick.)
Coming Home was recorded at Niles City Sound while the studio was still in its infancy by Austin Jenkins and Josh Block of the fellow Fort Worth band White Denim. Block was kind enough to share some details about the recording process on the audio engineering forum Gearslutz, and reading it you start to understand why this album sounds the way it does.
You've got to admire how faithful Jenkins and Block were to the period in everything they used. All of the mics, from Neumann U67s and U47s to RCA KB2As, BK5s, R44s and R84s, and even an Altec 639A, make up exactly what a mic closet would look like for an Otis Redding or Sam Cooke session in the late 50's.
The console is a Collins 212A and may be from as early as the 1940s, though surely has gone through a decent bit of maintenance and modding. Everything was tracked to 8-track Studer and Ampex tape machines. The musicians were all recorded in the same room and without headphones, with the occasional exception of Leon who was in a booth. That last bit is important for a lot of reasons, but I think Block says it best:
"It's definitely fun and freeing for everyone. No cans, everyone in the same space feeling out the vibe and blending in the room themselves, just a little vocals in the mains. You can feel it when the singers starts to lean into the band more, and usually that's the take everyone likes. It's not perfect but I think that's why Leon and even the label (!), tended to like the very early takes in several cases"
The first thing that grabs my attention about Better Man is the sound of the room. You hear it right off the bat with the horns and the drums in the intro. Where Niles City Sound used to be a golf equipment warehouse, it's easy to picture the lofty ceilings allowing for a lot of natural room reverberation, and it all melds together beautifully. Then Leon comes in with the opening lyric "I don't want much..." and you hear another space entirely. Big thanks to Josh Block for not leaving us guessing on how they accomplished that sound. It turns out the reverb is an old AKG BX10 with an Echoplex EP1 before it for pre-delay.
The sax solo at :55 is another example of that warehouse reverb that sticks out to me. Whoa.
The next thing that caught my ear was the crunch of tape distortion on the vocal, which is really apparent at :21 on the word all in the lyric "Gimme all your good luck". Block confesses that they hit the Studer tape machine a little hard causing the recording to break up a bit. It's a pretty subtle sound but once you know it's there it's hard to ignore. For me the distortion is a charming detail that gives the vocal a little more presence.
Block says that compression was minimal on the whole record. You can hear that on Better Man all over the place. The dynamic balance is in the room and not the result of a compressor. The snare and cymbal hits move fluidly with the dynamics of the song, where in modern recordings they may be almost robotically consistent as a result of compression.
-Performance and Arrangement-
Bridges has a really profound voice, and his performance on Better Man is charming and genuine. He's somewhere between Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, though it feels crazy to say that his closest sonic comparisons are nearly 60 years his senior. But if you made a playlist of Leon Bridges, Sam Cooke, and Jackie Wilson, you'd never feel that Bridges stood out for being 60 years younger.
I love the organ in this track. It's such a subtle element that sits as a bed through the choruses and is used to punctate the verses here and there. It's sort of amazing to me how low the organ is mixed in the track; understated yet beautiful.
The tenor sax is the lone horn in this piece but with the room reverb and the panning, it took a moment to recognize that there wasn't an actual horn section there. It's so lush! The horn lines are really sparse in this track which speaks to the economy of the arrangement. They're perfect little moments of ear candy, and their infrequent use makes them all the more memorable.
Leon Bridges told Guide Live "I just wanted to paint a picture of faithfulness in that setting of classic soul music", and that's probably the most beautiful thing I've ever heard anyone say about the impetus for a record. Everything about Leon Bridges is disarming and genuine, and everything I've read anyone say about him confirms that.
There's some criticism regarding the swiftness of Bridge's rise to fame, but frankly it's all pretty irrelevant. Leon has only been writing music for 5 years, but in that time he taught himself guitar, started playing open mic nights, established a sound of his own, made friends with the dudes in White Denim, got picked up by Columbia, and released an incredible record that was nominated for a Grammy and reached #6 in the Billboard Top 200. Critics can only be envious.
If you dig this tune check out:
(all links go to youtube videos that stand as the best representation of the artist so you don't have to go hunting for music that doesn't suck)