Alabama Shakes; Boys & Girls Album Review

May 7, 2012 2:15 pm

Alabama Shakes Boys and Girls‘Boys and Girls’ is a summer night spent battling a hard difficult heat with too much bourbon and not enough ice; it’s the slow romance of a Southern sunset with all the sweetness and sadness darkness brings and it burns in the way a goodbye kiss does.  Lead singer Brittany Howard croons to us from her barstool (next to the jukebox, of course) while below her the songs swing like a pair of saloon doors hanging off the hinges. This is Otis Redding backed by The Rolling Stones and all pumped through a Marshall cranked to melting.

Alabama Shakes sound like every member stormed off stage at an open mic, met out by the parked cars and began to jam. The recording is scuffed and fuzzy and fraying; a band roaring through their numbers and not worrying about the minutiae. The set begins with the single “Hold On”, all thumping swaying drums and with a guitar riff straight out of “Albatross”, only sped up and picked by an indie kid (Heath Fogg) pretending to be Peter Green. As Brittany moans out her words the mood lifts and here we are with nothing new but nothing wrong, they’re the last soul band in town and they’re fighting to keep that spirit alive. The opening numbers are all there to intoxicate the listener before they really realise it’s even happening.

Through 11 songs the band sew Wilson Pickett patches onto their leather jackets and seal a sound they are very obviously at ease with. Being this comfortable with the vibe keeps them a key change away from tribute-act territory but at times it’s difficult to tell one song from the other: this is especially true of the slower tracks such as Goin’ to the Party, Boys and Girls and Heartbreaker, where the organ tides wash one tune into another. Be generous, call it a mid-album lull. The raucous  “I ain’t the same” and “On your Way” make up ground quickly, all sins forgotten.

Or nearly all forgotten. The first few listens are exciting, engaging. A few days pass and the record is back on the player; this time it doesn’t seem so fresh or interesting. A question niggles; what if we had better bands around at the moment? Would anyone care about these soul pretenders? It’s hard to avoid the hype about this quartet, yet who else is there to hype? And then line the album up against James Brown’s Live at the Apollo (1962) or Otis Blue and suddenly that Muscle shoals shine isn’t quite so bright- the songs simply aren’t those you would be singing to yourself on the walk home.

Alabama Shakes Promotional Image

What will keep the disk spinning is the beautiful cracking of the vocals, the aching words and the hollering Gospel builds. That sound is what will grab hearts and twist out the painful memories. The hazy, raw production and the swampy stew of reverb and grit intoxicate; you’ll find yourself dancing between the beats, a little mournful but free and not caring. This abandon it instils and distils in the listener makes record mostly irresistible- and there it is; this is an album of feel. You won’t find your favourite song here and you’ll be disappointed if you hope to. It isn’t a record of hits. You can drink and hit bottles together in cheers and not worry you’re talking over something.  Yet there is an authenticity that can’t be found in any other record released this year and that sincerity is enough to make it stand out.

With the rude, fuzzy guitars and pistol-shot drums, Alabama Shakes will find themselves winning ‘Best New Rock Act’ or the like. That’s a mistake: they are a soul band. A noisy one, yes, but bleeding with the best of them. Their pain, passion and lust is tied together with music that rolls and swells and prays, with hooks that are missing in their contemporaries (see the angular Black Keys.) And when you play the record with your friends, with some drinks, the band said it right: There’s going to be dancing and there’s going to be a fight.

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