"...how this album actually makes you feel. It gets under your skin, and that's what music is all about, y’all."
How does a nascent band with an unreleased album end up on a SXSW bill with the likes of Andrew Bird and Sharon Van Etten, just after taping a session of Austin City Limits? Or become both NPR and Paste Magazine’s Best New Artist of the Year, and find a place on Billboard’s Best Bets for 2012 list, and again, do it all before the album is even out? Alabama Shakes does it by being just that good, son, and don’t you forget it.
It’s a rare and beautiful thing when a band can evoke a lot of other sounds, yet be derivative of nothing. There’ve already been gallons of ink spilled for reviews of the album despite its only weighing in at 11 songs and a scant 37 minutes (not counting the bonus Heavy Chevy, which adds another 2:41), but one listen and you’ll totally get why this band has been invited to every music festival on Planet Earth this summer.
Still not hooked after the first run through? Listen again, because like an episode of Arrested Development, you’ll notice new things every time it runs through your earholes. Many of the songs have a dense keyboard surf-anthemy background, with back alley southern bar, intricate electric guitar passages, straight up R&B, and even a bit of Asian influence tossed in – “On Your Way” may be the best example of how these different components can scramble up to create something that will make you run a little faster and smile a little brighter. Brittany Howard scorches out each song like she’s been to a tent revival or two, and picked up how to sell gospel. Interestingly, the Shakes avoid the de rigueur banjo, or non-stringed instruments played with a violin bow, which seem to be the flavors of the month for indie bands of late, although here they might actually fit given the band’s Alabama origins. The sound manages to be both unique and familiar at the same time.
Howard’s voice, as well as her stage presence, are often compared to Janis Joplin, but there’s a Billie Holiday sweetness shot through all that intensity. If Holiday had been born in 1989 instead of 1915, she may have been able to approach Howard’s style, but there’s no real contemporary comparison for her. The closest thing we’ve got might be Adele, if she’d grow a spine and quit whining about her ex-boyfriend, but she’s nowhere near Howard - it’s the pure quality of tone combined with a raw, grinding tension that drives these songs off a bar room stage and straight onto a thousand “Best of” lists. If there’s a weak spot in this tapestry of Southern bliss, it’s probably “Going to a Party”, as Howard drains from sweet to downright cloying a third of the way through, but then the album grabs you once again by the nape of the neck and shakes the “Heartbreaker” right out of you on the next track.
The reviews keep coming back to phrases like raucous, combustible, or buzz band of the year, but what many reviews fail to describe is how this album actually makes you feel. It gets under your skin, and that's what music is all about, y’all. It makes you wish you had a time machine so you could go back to 1967 and listen to this album at a beach party on the Gulf coast. The album has already been reviewed by a million ears and the universal thread seems to be that if you aren't listening to Boys & Girls from now until September, then all the rainbows in your life will be devoid of red, orange, and yellow. So buy it, listen to it, and have a great summer.
ATO Records will release Boys & Girls on April 10th, but you can stream the album in it's entirety right now over at NPR.
Alabama Shakes will play Rams Head Live in Baltimore on April 7th, and it is SOLD OUT.
Great expectations can be a bitch. Everyone loves to love Alabama Shakes, and pour me a glass of that Kool-Aid, but honesty sometimes trumps love – on Saturday at the Rams Head Live, the band came out flat and didn’t make strides to recover until the encore. The 10-minute cover of Led Zepplin’s “How Many More Times” was the highlight of the show, but also one of the only moments when the original members of the band resembled something other than wax figures of themselves.
Openers Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires ignited the frenetic, sold-out venue with a fine straight-up southern rock set, and when Alabama Shakes came on stage, the crowd erupted into full-on berserker mode which didn’t stop for the next 70 minutes. Unfortunately, the only person on stage returning any of that love was Teddy-Ruxpin-stunt-double-and-bassist Zac Cockrell with his perma-grin; everyone else simply picked up instruments and played exact, note-for-note duplicates of tracks from Boys & Girls. There’s nothing wrong with playing tracks from your album (what the hell else are you supposed to play?), but a live show should bring something more, something you can take home with you besides a hand stamp and tinnitus.
Throughout the show, 22-year-old Brittany Howard stared at the layers of screaming fans packing the floor and two balconies, with that amazing voice rocketing out of her, but there was a lack of connection and emotion that you want/need in a good live show. She didn't say a word to the audience until the fifth song in, when she mumbled a two-line explanation for the title track “Boys & Girls” – a lovely statement about her childhood best friend, but delivered with the emotional depth of ordering a Chipotle burrito. Behind her the band played tight, controlled, exacting lines for each song, with the nonchalance that comes from playing the same 13 songs every single night for the last seven months.
There’s something in the album, as good as it is, that is still a bit reserved, like the band is holding something back, and I’d hoped that a live performance would unleash the awesomeness within. I’ve seen videos of these guys performing live elsewhere, in smaller venues, and they are GOOD. But that release didn’t happen in Baltimore – it was either an off-night, or maybe they were just exhausted or freaked out. Ten months ago, they were living in Athens, Alabama, and no one outside of a four-county bar circuit had heard of them. Now they’re playing Letterman and Conan and leap-frogging over all D.C. venues to sell out the 1,600 capacity RHL. Howard didn't crack a smile until the eighth song, delivering a gorgeous rendition of “Be Mine,” and the second half of the show opened up a bit after that, but the overall impression was of a very young band with a frightening amount of talent, with an equally frightening amount of pressure put on them in a VERY short time. It would be overwhelming for anyone, even the saviors of eight different genres of music, but if they can get over it the shows that are yet to come are going to melt your spine.