REVIEW: ALABAMA SHAKES – “BOYS & GIRLS”

Alabama Shakes may not visually appear like your usual music group, but they’re shaking up the music scene. Formed in Alabama in 2009, their first album ‘Boys & Girls’ is a strange mixture of Nina Simone and Kings of Leon; which, unexpectedly, is a match made in heaven. Front-woman Brittany Howard is going against musical history by lending her voice to rock n roll, rather than a genre with more diva-like qualities. Kings of Leon took years of semi-success and the introduction of more user-friendly tracks to become a world- wide phenomenon, yet Alabama Shakes ride onto the scene in all their unlikelihood to bring forward truly brilliant songs.

The opening lyrics to the first song, ‘Hold On’, are harrowing- “Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old”. The song presents an absolutely brutal mental battle between ‘holding on’ and letting go. Brittany wails out her lyrics, in the most beautiful sense of the phrase. Her voice is completely reminiscent of Nina Simone in ‘I Put a Spell of you’. The manly, gruff, soulful voice of Brittany introduces the band with an air of the unsure. You aren’t sure of the sex of the singer, the direction of the songs (God? Ex-lovers?), even the music genre is debatable; Mo town voice with southern rock and roll, definitely unheard of.

The magic of the album comes in the anonymity of the band. They were unheard of until now, and the album’s themes resound around a struggle for acceptance and waiting patiently for something to happen- ‘are you scared to tell somebody, how you feel about somebody?’ in ‘You Ain’t Alone’. Howard doesn’t fool me; the self-directed pep-talk style that she shares is enlightening. Now that they are most probably going to be popular for a long while, it’s reassuring to have such a down to Earth leader. ‘One, two, three, are you too scared to dance for me?’- ‘You ain’t alone’, placed in the first half of the album, is the hidden jewel of the record. It is raw.

The hype surrounding Alabama Shakes has been mostly from video uploads of live performances in the past year. A lot of the criticism around their album has been about the recording quality of the tracks. I argue that the thin, on edge quality of the sound can be forgiven on this album. When you listen to Ella Fitzgerald or Etta James or James Brown it’s the thick, honey-like voice type that works with the pure talent of the band. Howard’s band mates are just as full of soul and understated vintage guitar riffs. ‘Heartbreaker’ works in a unique way, the drums and the guitar seem to melt together into unison.

The album’s namesake ‘Boys & Girls’ is a slow, restrained song. It is beautifully executed, especially Heath Fogg’s guitar producing the simplest of melodies. The White Stripes created frenzy with their male/female equalised band. Alabama Shakes carry the same, shrill, eerily perfect beltings as the Stripes, particularly showed off in ‘I ain’t the same.’ The album ends on the three minute long ‘On your Way’. The gospel, religious elements of the band reign through heavily on this. Sometimes this can be overbearing and hard to swallow. Howard and her band mates open the lyrics up for interpretation. It is so hard not to be swept away in Howard’s voice, it’s power will see this band through to the top.

Rating – 4/5

Review by Bryony Taylor

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