Few semblances of soul’s golden era still walk among us. Even fewer are still active. Arguably, the soul artists still standing are legends in their own right – names like Lee Fields and the recently deceased Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones, to name a few. While Fields, Bradley and Jones have become synonymous with the modern, retro-tinged soul revival, far fewer music fans are familiar with the brilliant work of Portland vocalist Ural Thomas.
The undisputed king of the Pacific Northwest’s soul circuit, Ural Thomas has had a circuitous and prolific musical career. His early days in the 1960s saw him tear up the same stage as icons like James Brown and Otis Redding — who, legend has it was very unhappy with the enthusiastic reaction Thomas’s opening set received when they played together. Uninterested in dealing with the cutthroat competition in soul music at the time, Thomas gradually faded into obscurity, eventually becoming a ship repairmen in Portland and playing club gigs for fun on nights and weekends.
Around the same time, Thomas also set up a Sunday night jam session at his house in Portland’s Mississippi District, where local musicians he had befriended would occasionally sit in. Local drummer and DJ Scott Magee, who was familiar with Thomas’s work through his stellar 1967 single “Pain Is the Name of Your Game,” showed up one evening in 2013. Thomas was impressed with Magee’s skills and Magee was enthusiastic about playing with Thomas, so they exchanged numbers and kept in touch.
Soon after, the two formed a full band and dubbed themselves Ural Thomas & The Pain, collaborating on original songs and performing together around town. Word quickly spread and their raucous shows at local haunts like The Goodfoot became one of Portland’s best kept secrets. Along the way, the band recorded two excellent albums, both of which received praise among soul heads in the know.
Their third album, Dancing Dimensions, just hit shelves and is poised to give Ural Thomas & The Pain the wider acclaim they deserve. It’s also the first Ural Thomas & The Pain release to consist of entirely original songs rather than material that draws on Thomas’s older songs from the 1960s.
With Dancing Dimensions, Thomas & The Pain have crafted a collection of songs that draw inspiration from classic soul music but give it a 21st century feel. Which doesn’t necessarily mean anything too fancy: reverb, vocal effects and other tricks of the recording studio go a long way to making something sound modern without compromising how it sounds in any other way. In fact, the best thing about this album is how timeless it sounds: while you can hear what draws upon the past, you never feel like you’re listening to something old. It’s classic soul music with a modern twist, tinged with elements of psychedelia, pop, and even electronic music.
All in all, Dancing Dimensions stands as the best album of Thomas’s long and storied career. This is not just a good album to bring his fans back into the fold, but also a great starting point for anyone looking to experience this talented singer-songwriter for the first time.
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