THE FIRST FULL-LENGTH album by Ural Thomas and the Pain has been a long time coming. The R&B revivalist group, led by the 77-year-old soul belter, has been kicking up dust in the local music scene since 2013, and bandleader/drummer Scott Magee talked about sessions for this LP at least two years ago. Considering the long path it took to bring Thomas out of semi-retirement and into the studio, the wait doesn't seem that outrageous.
Thomas was a singer on the rise in the mid- to late-'60s, releasing singles on UNI Records (home to Neil Diamond and Dead Moon precursor group the Lollipop Shoppe) and playing shows with Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones. But after getting run through the music industry wringer, he walked away from the business, returned to his hometown of Portland, and quietly hosted jam sessions out of his home. Enter Magee, a DJ with a deep love of vintage soul and funk, who befriended Thomas and convinced him to get back in the game.
With a few years of live performances under their collective belt, Ural Thomas and the Pain finally entered the studio and solidified their frontman's return. And if you've seen the band in concert, you know precisely what you're going to get with this self-titled double LP (out on Mississippi Records): a collection of heartfelt R&B that aims to replicate the glory days of the mid-'60s when labels like Motown and Stax were at their peaks.
To that end, the group mixes newly minted originals with a smattering of re-vamped versions of some of Thomas' early singles. The slow grind of the 1967 track "Pain Is the Name of Your Game" has been morphed into a baritone sax-led hip swinger, and any of the doo-wop vestiges of "Deep Within My Heart," a single Thomas recorded with the Montereys in '64, are wiped clean in its new version.
As for the fresh material, the band does as well as their other fellow soul revivalists like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Charles Bradley have in getting as close to a vintage sound as possible. The arrangements are crisp, funky, and tasteful, with just the right amount of color added via a small horn section, brassy backing vocalists, and the welcome thrum of a Hammond organ played by Steve Aman and Ben Darwish. Otherwise, the Pain does the right thing by providing the rhythmic foundation over which Thomas unleashes his heartache, desire, and spiritual bliss.
That's the key to this project's continued success: Co-producers Magee and Nick Waterhouse simply let Thomas be Thomas. They allow him to soar while also respecting the earthbound moments when his voice cracks or he goes a little flat. He can bring the goods and does so often on this record (just listen to him growl on the jumping closer "I'll Be Gone" and slowly ratchet up the heat through "I'll Do It for You"). But by leaving those small human touches when he falters, it allows us to respect his age and circumstance. Unlike Jones and Bradley, Thomas most likely isn't going to start crisscrossing the world and preaching the gospel of soul on a big tour. He'll instead remain our local treasure, cherished and admired, with a now more complete monument to his ongoing legacy in the form of this savory LP.