A great man once said that, “[in rock 'n' roll] you need that ever-present now, that is part of grabbing life by the horns …[it's what] people come to rock shows for. But there’s also a forward energy: that it’s always for tomorrow. It’s always for tomorrow, it’s always for tomorrow.”
That sense of balls-out emotional rawness combined with a forward momentum is something that the Alabama Shakes seem to have ingrained on their musical subconscious.
Who, again? Why, the hottest-rising indie band, the Alabama Shakes. See, I know because I am in-the-know (she said, smugly). Though if I’m being honest, the only reason I know is because someone more in-the-know than I told me (you know who you are and I thank you). But back to the band…
The Alabama Shakes infuse their music with such urgency that it seems guitarist and lead singer Brittany Howard would quite literally burst if she wasn’t able to lay it all out there for us to scoop up. The rest of the band – musicians Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), Steve Johnson (drums), and Ben Tanner (occasionally on keys) – possess some serious musical chops, too. And together this unassuming group from the small town of Athens, Alabama play the hell out of each and every one of their songs.
Now let me clarify: I say “unassuming”, not because these lovely musicians are from a small town. After all (random movie quote alert!), “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” I say “unassuming” because there is no flash to their shows, other than the sheer power of the music itself. There are no fancy costumes or choreographed “sexy” dances or pyrotechnics. Thankfully. This is a small group of musicians that, not long ago, were playing shows and holding down various important-but-humble day jobs, including: a worker for the U.S. Postal Service (Howard) and worker at a nuclear power plant (Johnson).
Word-of-mouth about the band’s magnetic live performances spread and they soon came to the attention of a broader audience thanks to some buzz sparked over at Aquarium Drunkard in July 2011. Then, in September 2011, the group released a four-track EP, which attracted even more positive media attention. Pretty soon the Alabama Shakes were opening for the Drive-By Truckers and preparing to release their debut album.
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.
The most touching song from the forthcoming album is most certainly “Boys & Girls“, which has echoes of the great Bill Withers in it. Howard wrote the song in regard to her experience with a childhood friend and how the relationship changed as they grew up. It is heartbreaking and is a true slice-of-life tune. There are a lot of growing pains expressed in the songs that the Shakes produce, but not all are of the down-and-out variety. While each number is overflowing with passion and urgency, there is also great joy to be had. That joy resonates especially in songs like “Hold On” and “Heavy Chevy”. Check them out here and here, respectively.
Many before me have said that the group is in the throws of a meteoric rise to inevitable fame. On that note, let me promise you: this is no Lana Del Rey-over-hyped-before-the-talent-is-verified shenanigans. The attention the Alabama Shakes garners is well-deserved, thanks to the talent of the group as a whole and the powerful pipes of lead singer Brittany Howard. One listen to a single track off their EP is enough to solidify my point. Done and done. And while their rise now seems to be happening “overnight” (translation: ain’t no such thing), they have worked together as a band for three years laying the groundwork. Besides, this isn’t the type of music you can manufacture at the drop of a hat without the type of passion and commitment that they possess.
The music isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s pretty rough around the edges. But its imperfections are the very thing that makes it so seductive. It hasn’t been airbrushed into a semi-human form; it is human and a deeply heartfelt expression of exactly what that means. Howard said it best when she remarked, “Soul music doesn’t necessarily have to mean it’s old R&B. It just means you’re saying what you mean and you really mean it.” By that definition, boy do the Alabama Shakes really seem to know soul. Furthermore, this is a group with a wonderful new voice and an edge from which I am sure we will soon being hearing a lot.