I'm not sure Phillip-Michael Scales' debut, Sinner-Songwriter solves or confuses the nature/nurture debate. Scales is B.B. King's nephew, yet the album isn't overtly bluesy. But part of the reason Scales dialed down the blues is because when you grow up with a blues legend as your uncle, you tend to stay in your own lane. Luckily, while lane drift is deadly on the highway, it works well for this album of soulful pop that has a blues energy, even if it's not the uptown blues associated with King.
The subtle blues vibe is what made me surprised this is a debut. Many artists start with straight blues and gradually allow other styles to seep into their music. The blues usually moves from the center of the music to more of a flavor. But Scales has figured out how to hint at the blues, without leaning on the familiar tools of the style. There's no harmonica. The guitar is subdued. This is a modern rock album that simmers under a blue flame.
And it's very well done, from the heavier songs to the ballads. "Feels Like Home" might be one of the albums bluesiest tracks, with a jolly guitar riff that recalls the Black Keys. Scales' voice has a beautiful, blues-driven resonance, though, so while the music itself has an intentional claustrophobic smallness, like instruments grinding away in a small garage, the vocals both soar and purr, like a classic blues artist given a shot at a new genre. And nailing it.
The ballads are also enjoyable. "Your Love's Working Me to the Bone" is low-key and smoky, a simple electronic beat slowly expanding, as Scales' voice wraps around the entire song, almost a band all by itself. "Shame" is dramatic, with emotive backing vocals, courtesy of Kristin Brooks and Jennifer Hall, supporting a '50s inspired chord progression. The song's bones are classic, but the bombast is modern, and allows Scales voice to soar, showing, if not everything he's capable of singing, then at least a lot of his talent.
I'm not sure I would have spent as much time with this album if not for the King connection, but after a few spins, the songs began to stick with me. A huge part of that is Scales' voice and songwriting, but you also have to factor in the bluesy foundation, that while not explicit, still hangs over the tracks. Most blues lovers won't listen to this and think, "Blues!" but for anyone who gives this some time, there are some nice blues-oriented surprises that listeners will discover over repeated listens. Scales isn't a typical blues artist, but the blues infuses his genes and his music.