The distinct feeling you get when listening to Alabama Shakes is that you’ve heard this band before. The music is familiar, it’s been around for a long time, but not enough people have been making it lately. Fewer still have been playing it this well.
The band’s talents evoke a host of comparisons, comparisons to seminal acts and influences spanning decades. It would be easy to get over-effusive in one’s praise by simply listing their names, and it wouldn’t account for the Shakes’ own fearlessness in how they bring these sounds together. The way Boys & Girls unfolds as an album explores the wide range these musicians are adept at covering, bordering on showing off.
Most distinctly their sound exudes the vibe of the American South; bluesy, full of rhythm and soul. Vocalist Brittany Howard is as comfortable belting out notes as she is crooning them, and the band is not to be outdone. Guitars, bass, percussion and even the unmistakable sounds of piano — each component of the Shakes takes its turn at centre stage but shines just as brightly in a supporting role. And while the concise sometimes gives way to the overproduced, it’s a sin easily forgiven in the larger scheme of Boys & Girls.
Hold On is a song that pulls you right in, with loud and catchy guitar riffs, and Howard’s gravely voice comes out like she’s thrown her whole body into the act of singing. The touch of religion will be revisited multiple times throughout the album, but that thread has an uplifting gospel music approach rather than a sense of solemnity.
The first track is also our introduction to the themes of longing and belonging that are the strongest emotions invoked by this debut. I Found You goes on to fully embrace them, bringing the whole band out in full force to get the message across. Alabama Shakes, it would appear, quite enjoy being grand.
Hang Loose is the first song you can really categorise as fun, delivering a freewheeling sense of camaraderie, as the guitar leads the way and Howard sings “go with the tide an I’m a take care of you…”
Rise to the Sun continues with that vibe with Howards’ voice enticing you during lulls between crashing cymbals. Though even at its most gregarious you can’t escape the mood of lines like “I feel so homesick/where’s my home?”
You Ain’t Alone is a ballad-esque rollercoaster conveying emotions with musical valleys and peaks before transitioning to the playful and suggestive Goin’ to the Party.
You’re expecting Heartbreaker by the time it comes around, anticipating the insistence with which the song is delivered, though its mix of funk and soul is anything but predictable.
The title track is certainly the most wistful, but despite its roots in the music made famous by soul greats like Otis Redding, it isn’t a romantic number, rather it’s a song about the real-life difficulty experienced by Howard in holding onto a friendship.
As the drums, organ and guitar come together over the vocal high notes of Be Mine and the track peaks, listeners are brought back to this band’s ability to rock out, and you can’t help but imagine that the Shakes must play one heck of a live show. I Ain’t the Same follows that vein both musically and thematically; “I been looking for something/have you been looking for me”. More words about companionship, but accompanied by a disclaimer of sorts.
On Your Way is the Shakes trying to end the album with a bang; an attempt to bring together all the respective ingredients of Boys & Girls. It’s a song that comes across as muddled, the most distinct warning of the band’s limitations.
But as they get ready to tour with Jack White, one of the earlier promoters of the Alabama Shakes band, and a man adept at innovating with classic sounds, Howard and Co. are poised to overcome any number of artistic barriers. They may have started as a cover band, but as this otherwise adolescent entity continues to mature, expect some real originality to shine through all the comparisons.
Asad hosts Moonlight Mile every Thursday on CityFM89 from 10:30 pm to midnight You can find him on Twitter; @asadmkh