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.