A lot of people have said that the Alabama Shakes’ music sounds like it comes from another era. Well, yes it does at first listen. But what I’m gathering from their sound as the relationship gets more serious is a subconscious selection of the baddest of blues, the nittiest of soul, and the grittiest of rock and roll.
Vocalist Brittany Howard does not sound like a reincarnation of Janis Joplin, she has her own sweaty, rusted steel in the heat of summer, scraping metal like she’s trying to wake the dead pipes. This chick does not have just a beautiful voice, she has a gift. It is unabashedly raw, the kind of voice that unhinges your knees and frees your soul. Then there’s the rest of the music. This whole band melds together like it was the handwriting on the wall for them to be right here, right now, in this once-in-a-lifetime scenario.
It all started just a few years back.
While still attending high school in Athens, Alabama (population: 22k), Brittany Howard was interested in making music with some people. Now, I don’t know if she had this all sort of pre-planned or if fate just happened to bring the rest of the line up all neat and tidy. But Brittany knew what she was doing.
At school, there was this boy named Zac Cockrell that she had her eye on because he wore obscure band tees and played bass. Since Brittany played guitar, she approached him, and they started jamming together. Then, they decided to enlist another obscure member — a punk/metal drummer who worked at the town’s only record store. These are the makings of any great cult classic high school movie, if you ask me. Fast forward a bit to the part where they heisted guitarist Heath Fogg from another band, and The Shakes, more presently known as the Alabama Shakes, were born.
That’s all ancient history, though. We have a great new album to talk about here, people.
Boys & Girls takes its listener back to a memory they may or may not have ever realistically had. Summer is on the fringe, the breeze slight in a humid air, while sticky bare feet melt into the hot pavement. You’re being pushed and pulled by a young and intense love that has your heart in a vice. None of these feelings seem shocking, however.
I don’t like to expect anything in particular when it comes to debut records, because this is a delicate time for a new band — they have to get a couple deep before we really see what they’re made of sometimes — but I’m pretty positive everyone already knew what this band was made of coming into it, so the record is precisely what it should be. Boys & Girls emulates a feeling of freedom, soul searching, and heart yearning It is soulful, it is deep, and Brittany rips hard on that mic. Don’t look for the big kicker here; just appreciate that sound we’ve all been eating up these past few months.
It seems to me that Alabama Shakes laid their album out in a smart order, beginning with spirit-lifting, spine-tingling single “Hold On.” This may have been an intentional reminder to fans that this is where they’re coming from and to not get ahead of themselves. We move on through to a “Born on the Bayou”-kindred “Hang Loose” — a slick, guitar-riffed track with a gruff vocal delivery that came with a disclaimer at SXSW with Brittany’s announcement to the audience: “Hello, Austin, Texas. I’m gonna murder you.” Hang loose, guys, no worries.
One of the songs that sounds more progressive, less Otis Redding-meets-Janis Joplin evocative, is the rowdy chorused “Rise to the Sun.” Drummer Steve goes off on the drums in this hootenanny, and there’s this nod to funky reggae guitar that just makes you feel real nice. Then the Shakes drop your heart on the floor and slow dance over it on “You Ain’t Alone.” “One, two, three…are you too scared to dance for me?” croons the blues-ridden songstress. This song cuts you, blows on the wound before mending it, then rips the band-aid off, pleading for love, bleeding the lyrics “you ain’t alone, just let me be your ticket home.”
The tip-toeing successor, “Goin’ to the Party,” smells like whiskey-soaked breath and feels like some sort of an omen. Perhaps this record was named Boys & Girls in an attempt to work through the complicated, yet so bittersweet love of your early 20s. This record is like the first real boyfriend who gave you your first real heartache.
The roller coaster takes a deep dive with a quiveringly sorrowful blues confession on “Boys & Girls,” but climbs its way back up to clarity somewhere between “Be Mine” and end song “On Your Way.” Maybe this is a letting go, maybe a closure point, maybe you’re left feeling a little bit sad but a little bit better. But in all fairness, where would the blues be without a broken soul? Where would rock and roll be without raw, bona fide angst? This is precisely what we have come to love about Alabama Shakes…keeping it real all the way through.
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