Alabama Shakes is a blues-rock group from Athens, AL, that formed in 2009. As such, they missed out on both the original blues-rock explosion of the ’70s (ah, duh) and much of the subsequent revival as facilitated by the likes of The White Stripes and The Black Keys. Even still, their debut LP, Boys & Girls, is a profound submission, one which injects fresh life into the genre while maintaining its blazing spirit.
Sounding unlike any other young female singer working today, front woman Brittany Howard’s voice is a dynamo of emotional vulnerability and raspy sex appeal. On “Heartbreaker”, Howard’s voice toes the line between surreal awkwardness and being overwhelmed by cutting shards of forlorn. It’s as if you’re listening to someone’s very life disintegrate, and you can’t do a thing but wait with joyous anticipation to see how far she can fall. Vocally, Howard can readily flip the switch from emotionally damaged to slightly humorous, as evidenced in her Nina Simone-esque performance in “Goin’ to the Party” (particularly the line “You gotta take me home now, I know you ain’t drinking water/You gotta take me back ’cause I’m still someone’s daughter”).
Howard’s shining moment, however, comes on the album opener, “Hold On”. Delving into the realm of gospel, Howard unearths a vocal performance that’s drenched in pain, with tiny globules of regret and remorse practically forming around the base of your speakers. When she sings the line “Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old/There must be someone up above sayin’, ‘Come on Brittany, you got to come on up/You got to hold on…’”, the undeniable proof of celestial interference in her sad life is abundant in the cracks of her voice.
Despite its utter strength and unrelenting depth, Howard’s voice wouldn’t be the star of the show without the rest of the band. Throughout the album, the boys do their best to stay out of the spotlight, which gives Howard the full attention she deserves, while expressing themselves in unseen yet equally important manners. Particularly, it’s the backing vocals, harmonies that are crisp and focused and add a counter sheen to Howard’s soulful expressions. It’s also in less tangible moments, like on “You Ain’t Alone”. As is par for the album, Howard delivers vocals that could shatter someone’s very soul, yet so much of that power stems from the band’s gentle instrumentation; a slow, chugging guitar and the punctuation of cymbals crashing gives Howard a mighty jumping-off point. It’s symbiosis at its finest, y’all.
Of all the contributing factors to the album’s success, it’s the willingness for experimentation that may be most fruitful. While the album sticks mostly to flourishes and small tweaks, “Rise to the Sun” stands as a gem of free-flowing innovation. The three-minute track begins with a fusion of driving blues-rock and sunny, almost psychedelic organ work. The closing minute, though, represents the true meat of the song (and perhaps the album at large): a cacophony of the previous instrumentation, clashing into each other at violent speeds with glorious results. It’s intricate and messy, with the heart of a soul song and the skin of a punk anthem. Though it stands alone as the clearest example of sonic experimentation, its energy infuses the rest of the album with a sense of invigoration, as if each track may very well veer into similar territory at any moment.
The album’s other examples of experimentation lay outside the music, found instead in the contextual approach to several songs. “I Found You” is the tale of a long journey, revamping the dynamic of the world-weary man searching for a good woman. “I Ain’t the Same”, which takes a brighter, more bubbly approach, sees Martin cast as the woman now revealing to her beau that she’s at last finished with her troublesome ways.
Though ultra-subtle, these power shifts are lethally effective. By slyly bringing them to the attention of the listener, the changes are neither overwhelming nor overdone, thus making them perfectly suited to hunker down inside the sensibilities of everyone who hears them. As a result, they help to realign what is possible between the sexes in the previously one-sided realm of solid blues-rock.
Even if they are late to the party, Alabama Shakes have proven themselves as a band with a keen understanding of the genre’s basics and a curious spirit perpetually seeking to move upward and onward. From here on out, it’s safe to assume they’re not just a bunch of wet-behind-the-ears rookies and are, quite possibly, the new faces of modern blues-rock.
Essential Tracks: “Hold On”, “Rise to the Sun”, and “I Ain’t the Same”