Words by Bill San Antonio
Alabama Shakes’ reputation precedes them. The R&B/blues band — from, you guessed it , Alabama — have skyrocketed to notoriety after slots on South By Southwest and Austin City Limits, a stint on the late-night talk show circuit, and catching the ear of Jack White, who signed the Shakes for a series of live singles to his Third Man Records label and invited them to open on his solo tour this spring.
So much has happened in such a short period of time since Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell formed the band out of a high school psychology class in 2009 that it is easy to forget that the band’s debut effort Boys & Girls (Rough Trade Records) — which entered the U.S. Billboard chart at No. 16 upon its April 9th release — is only the band’s first attempt at original songwriting, let alone writing a full-length album.
Boys & Girls provides a strong foundation for the Shakes to build a career. It isn’t overly ambitious, nor is it too simple to be taken seriously — for as young a band as Alabama Shakes are, they have a keen understanding of their vintage, soulful blues-rock sound, thanks to early shows filled with influential Otis Redding and James Brown covers as well as original material, and amplify that style with the 11 tracks that make the final cut.
Sonically, Boys & Girls is so stripped of the complex effects and distortion that this generation of rock fans has come to expect that the lingering cymbal crashes and guitar amp hisses and microphone echoes — unique aspects of live rock music that can be felt throughout the record — add an extra layer to the Shakes’ sound that seems more by design than the result of a young band mixing and producing its debut full-length without the help of more experienced professionals.
There’s a raw edge to Boys & Girls that could have only come as the result of the Shakes taking complete creative control over their sound, one that mirrors the powerful live performances that made them so famous so quickly. Such a sound wouldn’t fully come together, however, without Howard’s powerful, whooping vocals. The frontwoman sings with a soulful passion and smokey southern grit that cannot be learned or duplicated, though it has drawn comparisons to Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin as well as Brown and Redding. Boys & Girls utilizes that voice more than any other component of the band’s musicianship, which makes the debut stunningly self-aware.
This awareness extends even lyrically, with Howard crooning on the album’s opener, “Hold On” that she “didn’t think [she’d] make it to 22 years old,” a line that paradoxes her lack of maturity as a young adult by marveling at the maturity she exudes at practicing her craft.
Howard’s howling vocals are so mature, in fact, that they overshadow the rest of the band on most tracks—even her soloing abilities as a guitarist, which have been as critically acclaimed as her voice, takes a backseat on Boys & Girls. While songs like “Hold On,” “Hang Loose,” and “I Found You” build to powerful, jam session-esque choruses with each musician equally contributing to the band’s feel-good energy, the Shakes rely too often on Howard to carry them through ballad tracks like “You Ain’t Alone” and “Boys & Girls” which slow that pace and zap that energy.
“Boys & Girls”
Rough Trade Records
© April 9th, 2012
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