Alabama Shakes are one of the most buzzed-about bands up and coming this spring. Their sound, it’s said, is a complete throwback to the Muscle Shoals sound, a gritty bedrock of fuzz-soaked guitars and crunching drums laid beneath a reborn Janis Joplin in lead singer Brittany Howard. She recalls not just Joplin but Otis Redding, Mavis Staples and Bettye LaVette at various moments on debut album Boys & Girls. The band plays songs straight out of the late ’60s/early ’70s, a time when rock and soul fused and briefly became indistinguishable from each other. They are saviors for the lovers of old-fashioned rock & roll, saving the great sounds of generations past and keeping the fire burning for generations to come.
While that all might be a bit much, especially for a band releasing their first LP and only having played together for three years or so, the buzz about Alabama Shakes is dead-on in many key aspects. It misses an essential final touch, however. At a certain point, when listening to Boys & Girls for the first time, it stops sounding like a mix-and-match of elements of a glorious past and starts sounding, resolutely, like Alabama Shakes.
There are musical checkpoints draped all over the 11-song set, of course, and part of the fun of any throwback act is playing spot-the-influence as it goes. On “I Found You,” Howard sounds like Janis Joplin groovin’ over an Otis Redding-meets-the-Righteous Brothers outtake, while Redding himself would have absolutely owned the anguished slow burn of “You Ain’t Alone.” The guitar on “Hang Loose” could have escaped from a post-comeback Elvis hit, first seeking refuge in a bright, early-Supremes piano roll and then finding salvation in a heavenly organ wash worthy of Al Green.
Importantly, though, the band is so comfortable in its fusion of rock and soul, yet not so detached in time that they are a pure revival act. “Rise to the Sun” manages to sound like the rock-soul Jim James was trying to record for years with My Morning Jacket, and would easily have been a standout track on Z or especially Evil Urges.
And then there’s “Hold On,” the debut single and lead-off track. Kicking in with thumping drums, and then a dirty guitar tone that may or may not contain within it the eternal secret truths of love and loss, “Hold On” starts on as sure a footing as any debut single in recent memory. That’s all before Howard starts singing. Her scratched voice enters, building to a primal howl, rivaling the drums and guitars for timeless urgency at the song’s climactic peak. She leads the Shakes to the promised land. It’s a knockout track, likely to stave off many challengers and emerge as one of the year’s best singles.
The album is not without its flaws, it should be noted. A few of the songs on Boys & Girls don’t fly with either the energy or confidence of the highlights that bookend the set. There’s one of those middle-of-the-album lulls, the kind where you’ll skip a track or two to get to the next one you love, but you can’t necessarily pick which one of the tracks you skipped wasn’t worth your time.
None of the songs here are unworthy, but it’s an album that nonetheless feels loaded at the top and the bottom. The production is also at times too murky and leaves many tracks with an imprecision that borders on excessive. The sound is undoubtedly effective, to be sure, and this is hardly a band that calls for crystal-clear clarity in its recorded presentation. It’s just possible that a better balance could have been struck to hit that sweet spot that their fellow Muscle Shoals sound flag-bearers, the Drive-By Truckers, occasionally hit with such rewarding satisfaction.
By the end of the album, however, there’s a one-two punch in “Be Mine” and “I Ain’t the Same” that are as potent as any on record in a long time. And then “On Your Way” carries the album to a blissful conclusion. It’s at this point when you’ve stopped playing spot-the-influences. Alabama Shakes come across as so confident in their sound and their songs, so assured in their performance, that these songs land with the ease of instantly familiar favorites. This is where it’s important to remember: This is a debut album. That they are already delivering this album, one of such earthly delights with divine inspiration, is a blessing to all of us listeners.
We get to look forward to the further development of a new, potentially great rock band. In a time when the radio can sound drenched in Auto-tune and dubstep-inspired bass drops, country-twanged tweenage pop balladeers and/or Disney channel-approved stars and starlets, it’s tempting to despair that rock & roll is dead—just as generations before have despaired for, well, generations.
Alabama Shakes offer an opportunity to welcome the still-beating heart of rock & roll a new life. There is, as there always seems to be, a new rising crop of young rock & roll bands pushing forth from beneath the surface, ready to shake both bones and booties. Alabama Shakes, welcome to the head of the class.