Every once in a while there will be a band that literally comes out of nowhere and skyrockets to stardom even before they put out an album. Their rise to fame is usually fueled by the music media, who more or less fall in love with the band based on a few songs or a live performance, and bill them as the “next big thing.” Alabama Shakes are one of these bands, and they have literally become stars in the course of months.
I first heard of this quartet from Alabama when Paste Magazine pronounced them as the Best New Band of 2011 (scroll to the bottom of the article). I usually ignore these types of pronouncements because, more times than not, those bands flame out or take a few years to get anywhere. My interest was piqued, however, when my cousin emailed out his annual “Best Albums of the Year” this past December, listing the Shakes’ EP as an honorable mention. My cousin and I don’t see eye-to-eye on every band, but for the most part we have similar musical interests, so I asked him if I could take a listen to the EP. I enjoyed what I heard, and was eager to hear what their full-length release would sound like. Over the course of the next couple of months, I started seeing the band’s name pop up all over different music media outlets, as well as noticing that a few of my friends were listening to them on Spotify. They also performed on Conan, a performance that really caught my attention, and got me more excited about what this band could put out.
This past Tuesday, the Shakes finally released their first full-length record, Boys & Girls. I’ll be honest and say that on my first listen through I was left a little unimpressed, especially since all four of the songs on their EP are on the record, and are seemingly the same exact recordings. So I’ve forced myself to listen to the album a bunch to wash away any expectations I had for the album and just take it as it is. While the album is nothing to go nuts over, it’s solid and shows that this band has the talent and musical knowledge to have a lengthy career.
Since the band is from Alabama, it’s not surprising that the album sounds like it came straight out of Muscle Shoals (though it was ironically recorded in Nashville). Lead singer Brittany Howard sounds like a mix of Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, and Tina Turner, having the power, emotion, and control in her voice that all three of those legends are known for. Her voice is the centerpiece of every song, grabbing your attention when she wails, as well as when she quietly emotes. The rest of the band does an incredible job to support Howard (who also plays rhythm guitar), never taking away the spotlight, but instead allowing her voice to sound more powerful. Lead guitarist, Heath Fogg, only adds to the feeling that the band recorded at FAME Studios, with his clean guitar leads that add color to every song, similar to the session greats that came through the infamous Muscles Shoals studio during its heyday. Bassist, Zac Cockrell, and drummer, Steve Johnson, anchor the group providing simple, yet highly effective grooves that compliment the natural feel that the Shakes emit.
The band is at its best when Howard is allowed to show her emotional range and given room to do a little (soulful) screaming. The opening track, and the album’s first single, “Hold On,” is a perfect example of this. Backed by a laidback groove and incredibly catchy guitar licks from Fogg, Howard sings soulfully about not being sure where she’s going in life, amazed that she made it past 22. Her voice than blissfully explodes during the bridge, grabbing the listener’s attention with no regard for anything. The Janis Joplin-esque “You Ain’t Alone” has the same kind of range in emotions, but is much more effective in its execution. This is probably due to the fact that the song is constructed almost exactly like a 60s soul ballad. Having a steady 6/4 feel, with the bass and guitar alternating hits on 1 and 4, and the piano playing every quarter note, the song is an emotional rollercoaster having crescendos and decrescendos of feeling and volume, that eventually climax with a burst of passion and sound, falling once again to almost nothing, before giving a final explosion of music. This may seem like I’m ripping on the band for copying classic songs, but I’m not, because the band pulls it off perfectly. “Heartbreaker” has a very similar feel to “You Ain’t Alone,” though Howard’s voice is much more intense and brash, the feeling is mimicked by a whirling organ and crashing cymbals throughout most of the song. Again, the band is able to effectively produce a classic soul power ballad.
Though nothing on the album is played at high tempos, or are extremely rockin’, the band shines when they get a little more upbeat and playful. “Hang Loose” is exactly that, the band just jamming out and having some fun. Though, the song begins with a very southern guitar lick, the song evolves into something that sounds like it came out of California, rather than Alabama. The album’s closer, “On Your Way,” begins like most of the Shakes’ songs, a bit on the slower/softer side, but soon takes off, barreling through the chorus. Though there is a break in the middle of the song, the band only takes a pit stop, picking up right where they left off, finishing the album on a strong note.
The most interesting track on the album is “Goin’ To The Party.” Clocking in at a brief 1:46 and having a weird circus feel, the tune sounds more like something that would come from My Morning Jacket or a quirky 70s folk-rock album, rather than a retro soul-rock record. However, the song, once again, shows off the talent of both Howard and Fogg. Howard’s voice is controlled and beautiful, more so than at any other part of the album, and the overdubbed vocal harmonies only add to her presence. Fogg’s guitar lines are tasteful, and seem simple only because they are so well placed and thought out.
Yet, the best track on the album is “Be Mine.” With smooth, tasty licks from Fogg, a solid backbeat from Johnson, Cockrell’s slyly funky bass lines, and Howard’s vocal prowess, this track has the best elements of the band. The song grooves through the verses and choruses, riding on the interplay between Fogg and Cockrell, while Howard’s voice is as tasteful as ever, but still filled with her patented passion. This is exemplified during the outro when band erupts with an incredibly joyful sound and Howard is pleading “BE MY BABY!” It’s songs like this that make me love music.
In the end, Boys & Girls is a good record, but as I mentioned early, it’s nothing to go crazy over. For people who love old soul-rock, especially stuff that came out of Stax and Atlantic Records in the late 60s, this album will be incredibly refreshing, especially in a world where music made by computers is king. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s solid, and in the end that’s what matters.
The big question I have is, will Alabama Shakes be able to survive the high expectations that the media has put on them? The band has given themselves a solid foundation to build their career off of, and I have no doubt that they will continue to produce quality records. But will they be able to truly break out and become bonafide stars? We’ll just have to wait and see, but until then, I’m going to enjoy what the Shakes have just put out and enjoy the ride.