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Critics have been falling all over themselves to praise Alabama Shakes for the past several months: Paste named the act its best new band of 2011, they were a must-see show at SXSW, and already have a big U.K. following.
Before the inevitable backlash begins, we suggest you grab a copy of “Boys & Girls,” the quartet’s debut album out today, April 10 (it follows last fall's 4-song EP) and find out what all the fuss is about.
The album’s rush of music —11 songs delivered in around 38 minutes —swirls around lead singer Brittany Howard’s bluesy, nuanced vocals. When she sings “Bless my heart/bless my soul/didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old,” in opening track “Hold On,” instead of sounding pretentious and overly precious, she sounds like an old soul for whom a real world 22 is her weary heart’s equivalent of 92. On “You Ain’t Alone” she conjures up Otis Redding’s ghost in a shivering, memorable performance.
Howard is the primary reason tastemakers have fallen all over themselves to praise this group from Athens, Ala. (as opposed to that other southern musical hotbed of yore, Athens, Ga.), but not the only one: the band’s appeal is that Alabama Shakes are so clearly the antidote to what is dominating pop music these days. There are no plastic princesses in pink or blue hair here (though The Shakes’ music is so friendly, they’d probably be welcome to grab a tambourine and join in). Plus, “B&G’s” rootsy naturalism sounds as if it were created in a vacuum, not only without any concessions to current radio trends, but without even any knowledge of them.
Instead, ghosts of the aforementioned Redding, Solomon Burke, Janis Joplin and even Amy Winehouse haunt their music and Howard’s vocal style. Just listen to the soulful “I Found You” or, more significantly, “Rise To the Sun” and try not to imagine Winehouse singing the organ-drenched tunes.
Without sounding deliberately retro or from a specific era, Alabama Shakes’ big drums, echo-y guitars and striking keyboards recalls a time when pre-recorded loops were nonexistent and when synthesizers weren’t many producers’ instrument of choice.
In that way, Alabama Shakes—which also includes guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson— are more akin to Jack White and the White Stripes than any other current outfit (in fact, White released a live 7” from the band on his Third Man Records). They share his same often ramshackle, often shambolic sound that sounds unschooled, but then closer listens reveal that it is deliberate in its primitiveness. In fact, the music grows more precise as the record rolls on, as keys, drums and guitars all slyly start to move in the same direction instead of seemingly battling each other as they do on some of the early tracks. Listen to the spooky, delicate “Goin’ To The Party” and how the guitar and drum dance around each other.
While it’s clear the best way to see Alabama Shakes is live—they will be opening for Jack White in May—”Boys & Girls” is a very fair representation of what to expect. Alabama Shakes’ music may be too looselimbed and raw for folks who like their music with a little more spit and polish, but fans of acts like Jack White and the Black Keys will eat this stuff up with a spoon.