It speaks volumes for the Alabama Shakes that after months of wildfire-like buzz (thanks to some stellar YouTube videos capturing the band’s electric live performances, an early plug over at Aquarium Drunkard, and successful appearances at such badass venues as SXSW), that the band has not been crushed by the weight of its own hype. Sure, their debut album, Boys & Girls, may feel a little safe, but it still maintains a strong fidelity to the very sound that helped catapult the unassuming group from Athens, Alabama to the center of the indie music universe in the first place. And that’s a smart move on the part of a band still in its relative infancy.
So what is their sound, exactly? Well, about a month ago, I posted this Spotlight piece on the Alabama Shakes. In it, I said:
“The Alabama Shakes’s sound is a powerful hybrid of soul, blues, and some serious rock ‘n’roll. Some have called it “retro soul”, though I would say this does the music here a great disservice. Sure, each song is heavily colored with the group’s acknowledged influences, including (but not limited to): Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, Black Sabbath, and AC/DC (yes, you read those last two correctly). And while these old school influences are certainly imprinted on the album, there is nothing retro about the music itself. Sure, the songs may remind you of classics by James Brown or Redding or Joplin, but they still feel fresh and full of life. This is rock ‘n’ soul with an awareness of now.”
Those words remain true today in respect to the group’s debut LP. The sound is everything that you would come to expect from this garage soul band, playing their hearts out for pure love of the music. Sure, each song is a little rough around the edges: there’s no air-brushing, no loops, no affectation, no pop culture references. But that lack of polish is precisely what makes the music so refreshing and attracts so many fans. There is breath and life in these songs – from the vivacious voice of front-woman Brittany Howard to each note coming from every instrument helping to give the music a fierce pulse. The Alabama Shakes present their music in such an urgent way that it gives it all a sense of organized chaos; there are moments where it feels as if the instruments and vocals are quite literally clamoring with each other for space in the overall soundscape of a song (as in the final forty-five seconds of “Hold On“ and the end of “Rise to the Sun“). But that’s not necessarily a flaw; instead, it’s the delightful sound of imperfection.
Now, if you have read anything about the band in the last few months, you have certainly heard tell of lead singer Brittany Howard’s powerful pipes. At times she is capable of letting her voice rip through the air in a way that is simply primal (as on the explosive “Be Mine“ or “On Your Way“); while at others she reigns it in to whisper, like she is having a conversation with herself that we are blessedly made privy to (in “Boys & Girls“). The attention she is garnering now is well-earned, and she accepts it with charming humility in interviews. But while Brittany Howard is the much ballyhooed presence at the center of this band, the rest of the group is not to be underestimated. With a voice as big as Howard’s, it takes some serious musical chops to provide a framework strong enough to hold that voice up without collapsing under the sheer power of it. And fellow band members Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), Steve Johnson (drums), and Ben Tanner (occasionally on keys), are musicians that clearly possess such bold talent.
The album starts with the group’s most well-known song to-date, “Hold On“. The number opens like an invitation: it’s a mellow slow-building jam that swells to a cry of unbridled gusto placed firmly in the song’s central mantra. And when Howard sings,
“Bless my heart
Bless my soul
Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old”,
it feels like the intimate confession of an old soul, rather than the eye roll-inducing egotism of a young star publishing an autobiography at the ripe old age of 16 (*cough cough* Bieber! *cough*). Thank God.
Next is, “I Found You“, another standout number that is equal parts tenderness and joy. It manages to recall the deep soulfulness of the great Al Green, without turning into a retro gimmick or sacrificing an ounce of emotional sincerity. “Hang Loose“ is basically a sweaty rock ‘n’ roll good time, while “Goin’ to the Party“ is a drowsy and slightly mischievous song that is more emotionally reined in than the two numbers that flank it (the beautiful “You Ain’t Alone” and the crushing “Heartbreaker“). Speaking of which…
“You Ain’t Alone“ sounds like the glorious lovechild of Otis Redding and Jack White. I know that sounds weird but one listen to this slow-dragging number, with its intense longing paired with some bluesy-rock guitar riffs, and you will know why.
The Alabama Shakes aren’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to the lyrics on Boys & Girls, but that isn’t the point. The point is the feeling each song communicates. Not to mention the fact that these are not lyrics manufactured according to any formulaic pop music Mad Libs game. There is real conviction behind the words here, and Howard’s voice doesn’t betray that earnestness, not a bit.
“Much popular music is hollow professionalism – musicians and record producers recycling ideas and styles most likely to sell records. The memorable artists redefine the boundaries, either through blinding originality or by looking with unbending honesty at their deepest fears and grandest dreams.”
Whether that is too on the nose or overly cynical is for smarter people than myself to debate. Though, I believe there is a great amount of truth to those words. Based solely on this album and their first EP (and this may be a bit premature, I’ll admit), I believe the Shakes have placed themselves firmly in the camp of memorable artists.
Perhaps the most noticeable flaw in the album is how the magnetism and electricity of the band’s live performances fail to fully transfer to the recording room. It’s a small quibble after the erection of such high expectations based on said live shows, but it’s a quibble nonetheless. And while some early devotees of the band may find themselves longing for a recording of a live performance, Boys & Girls is a solid debut album from a band that is sure to grow and perfect their recording skills exponentially over time. The Alabama Shakes are who they are and their sound is what it is; trying to make it into something it isn’t through near-impossible expectations for a debut album creates a kind of disappointment that, honestly, is mostly of the self-made variety.