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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Alabama Shakes: Boys & Girls


1) Hold On; 2) I Found You; 3) Hang Loose; 4) Rise To The Sun; 5) You Ain't Alone; 6) Goin' To The Party; 7) Heartbreaker; 8) Boys & Girls; 9) Be Mine; 10) I Ain't The Same; 11) On Your Way; 12*) Heavy Chevy.

I am not sure of how «band-like» the Alabama Shakes really are. There is no doubting the com­petence (if not virtuosity) of bass player Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and guitarist Heath Fogg, but nobody doubts that the band is primarily the brainchild of Brittany Howard, who writes the songs, sings them, plays rhythm and occasionally lead guitar, and determines just about everything that makes the band worthy of our attention. (Yet another reason here for all the com­parisons with Janis Joplin, who, too, spent the most significant years of her career hiding behind the shoulders of «Big Brother»).

That said, unlike «Big Brother & The Holding Co.», «Alabama Shakes» makes far more sense. «The Shakes», which was the band's original name, obeys the same retro-vibe that, a decade earlier, gave us the Strokes, the Vines, and the Hives, but comes closer to symbolizing the band's musical essence — they are rather shakey, come to think of it; and «Alabama», added later in order to give them some extra differentiation, is even more symbolic. Few places get less hip these days (or any days, for that matter) than the state of Alabama, and this only adds extra spice to the game — blatantly advertising your totally unhip roots in the process of becoming one of the most hip things on the scene.

The actual music written and arranged by the Shakes is no great shakes, pardon the pun. It is the kind of a mix of heavy-handed roots-rock and R&B that you are likely to encounter on dozens, if not hundreds, of albums released in between 1968 and, say, 1972-73 by various «B-level» Ame­rican and, occasionally, British acts that embraced the roots-rock revolution. Individual songs are based on chord sequences and guitar tones that remind one of everybody from the aforemen­tio­ned Big Brother to Van Morrison to Creedence (at one point, I almost took the melody of ʽHold Onʼ to be a decon­structed version of ʽDown On The Cornerʼ) to, say, Stone The Crows, or Affinity, or other such bands fronted by loudmouthed females (or, sometimes, loudmouthed males). Revival of that stylistics in the early 2010s is not at all surprising — considering that just about everything else from the same years has already been revived — but it would take some really strong musical personalities to make it in any way interesting.

Fortunately, Brittany Howard is that personality. Onstage, like the state of Alabama, she looks so decidedly unhip that, through shifting opposites, this makes her hipper than the hipsterest hipster. Slightly clumsy, dressed in grandma's gown, looking like a provincial primary school teacher, she cannot even begin to aspire to any of the «glamor» that is still required, at least in a modest amount, from modern critically loved R&B stars like Adele or the late Amy Winehouse. She al­most looks like she got on that stage through some technical managereal mistake. But I do hereby acknowledge that she is the real thing. Where Amy had her soul focused on decadence and self-destruction, and Adele has hers focused on heaven, this dame is all about «salt of the earth», and goes all the way down to the very tips of those roots.

The lead single, ʽHold Onʼ, is by definition the best song on this relatively short debut album (its shortness, by the way, works very much to its benefit, since the band's sound is ultimately quite monotonous). Brittany's "didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old" line does not ring very true — despite all the comparisons with Janis, she certainly does not share her self-destructive life philo­sophy, and would be a complete idiot if she did — but we probably should not be taking it too literally: the overall message is one of making your life worth the while despite all odds (such as being born and reared in Athens, Alabama?), and it is perfectly symbolized by her drawing out the "hooooooooooold on" chorus in several different inflections, or by the way she belts out "I don't wanna WAIT!" to the power chord crash in the bridge section.

Out of political correctness, perhaps, Brittany's mixed heritage (half-black, half-white) is rarely, if ever, brought up in Alabama Shakes discussions, but it definitely matters, because, curious as it is, she does sound almost exactly midway in between the traditional gospel-soul belter à la Aretha or Tina Turner, from whom she gets the power and «spiritual freedom» aspects, and the more intro­spective, fine-nuanced white singer-songwriter of the Carole King variety. The generalization is a bit rough / broad, perhaps, but it is important to get the idea — Brittany's voice and the way she uses it are special (if they aren't, there's no point in listening to the band in the first place). So the first thing everybody notices on this less-than-model-quality girl is the awesome set of pipes — then, after a while, it also makes sense to notice how she modulates it to convey such a wide va­riety of emotions.

The funny thing is that many of these emotions seem thoroughly antiquated by today's standards — but that's the very charm of it. Naturally, I am not implying that they have not heard of any significant musical and cultural developments in the last forty years in the state of Alabama — that would be taking the stereotypical condescendence a bit too far — yet it is hardly a coinci­dence, after all, that Boys & Girls, an album that does make me feel like no other record that these forty years never really took place, ultimately stems from somewhere near the Muscle Shoals headquarters. (The actual recording sessions, as it turns out, happened somewhere in Nashville... but that ain't too far, and besides, there is nothing even remotely Nashvillian about the album's sound, especially since the band did not rely on session players).

In terms of individual highlights, Boys & Girls is hard to discuss. All of its music is heavily de­rivative, and the band is probably at its least interesting when it falls back on the generic Fifties' progression and Brittany starts channelling the spirit of Otis (ʽYou Ain't Aloneʼ; title track). They are far more exciting when they start to rock out (ʽHang Looseʼ; the ecstatic bonus track ʽHeavy Chevyʼ), or when they establish a happy, life-asserting Motownish groove (ʽRise To The Sunʼ), or when things quiet down to a slow, hushed dialog of a jazzy rhythm guitar with an echoey surf lead (ʽGoin' To A Partyʼ, which sounds nothing like its actual title).

There are, indeed, some curious bits of musical synthesis happening every now and then, and some funny Southern-legacy incidents that one is bound to recognize (for instance, at the climac­tic musical crescendo end of ʽOn Your Wayʼ, when the heated-up lead guitarist breaks into the speed solo of Skynyrd's ʽFreebirdʼ for a few bars). But the biggest musical merit of Boys & Girls is not in individual musical ideas. It works as the promised land for those of us who thought it was no longer technically possible to revive the styles and ideals of roots-rock's Golden Age without slipping into technical boredom or, worse, suffering from utter phoneyniness. Boys & Girls may not be a masterpiece — in fact, even the most enthusiastic supporters of the band should not delude themselves with bright visions of an even grander future for Brittany Howard — but it is definitely not boring and, most importantly, not phoney. How the hell they manage to uphold and promote that vintage old-time «earthiness» without coming across as cheap third-rate imitators, loaded with trivial clichés, is not a question that can be easily answered. And any re­cord that poses questions that cannot be easily answered deserves a thumbs up almost by defini­tion. The songs may not be all that great, but the vibe, man — don't miss that vibe, particularly if you happen to be in your teens and think it way below your dignity to listen to your parents' record collections.

Check "Boys & Girls" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Boys & Girls" (MP3) on Amazon

1 comment:

  1. "it definitely matters"
    If you are raised in Alabama it most definitely matters. I refer to the Florida trial of yesterday. That state borders Alabama.
    And to make myself perfectly clear: I think it's a good thing from any esthetical point of view. Cultural crossovers should be encouraged by all means.
    Yesterday I saw an Afro-American jazz-guitarist, Stanley Jordan, playing Stairway to Heaven on Surinamese TV (the performance was from 1990). I'm a fan of Led Zep and not of jazz, moreover I'm no particular fan of the tapping technique, but that guy captured the essence of the song better than Jimmy Page since say 1975. Stealing back some roots, so to say.