Some people are born to perform, and, judging by Alabama Shakes’ debut album Boys & Girls, this is a band made up of those people. Hailing, as their name suggests, from Alabama, Alabama Shakes’ lead-singer Brittany Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell have been making music together since high-school, and since making MTV’s list of 11 Artists To Watch In 2012, being signed to Rough Trade Records last year and making their name as one of the best new live bands around this year, this really is a band that deserves the hype they are receiving and are proving that there is music in their veins.
Their sound is beautifully fresh but doused in the characeristics of traditional soul and the raw twangs of garage rock. Lead-singer Brittany Howard, who has a voice that could tear you apart, is full of a quivering intensity, with a powerful soulful bawl that sounds like it has been lifted right from the 60s. She has a strong passionate presence, like Aretha Franklin with a guitar, which does not come around very often. As album opener Hold On begins, we are pulled right into the bluesy, southern rhythms that quickly burst into the fizzing rock vibes that have helped them make their name as a band to see live. Howard does not waste time in showing just what her voice can do, booming the words ‘hold on’ as if her life depends on it. You Ain’t Alone, sitting in the middle of album, is the point at which any doubters will surely be turned. The nearly five minute long song shows Howard and the band at their best, creating a track with moments of tenderness, soft enough to slow dance to which then fly seamlessly into a ’60’s rock and roll kind of screaming passion. It is a song that, even after four and a half minutes, you just do not want to end.
There are many reasons why you would not want this album to end, the main one being that it is made for people to dance and scream along to; Hang Loose has a riff so light and bouncy that crowds will be moving before the opening has finished, and Rise To The Sun is a slow-burning highlight; ‘My eyes are full of stars, but I just can’t reach them, oh how high they are’. are the words Howard sings over a rippling guitar tune, just before the song explodes into the heavy soul blasts that we have already come to expect. As we reach the end of the album, however, the pace slows down, and, through songs such as the title track Boys & Girls, we are shown the side of Alabama Shakes which could make a crowd fall silent. Echoing whistles give way to Howard’s vocals, which almost fade to a whisper, and give this album just what it needs to make it a favourite with the critics.
When a band is as soulful and full of energy, and hyped up this much because of it, there is always a danger that they will not live up to the high expectations. Howard’s screeching vocals, accompanied by a band so full of classic soul feeling, make for a perfect mixture for a live show, but there is the feeling that this energy is dampened when you are listening to them through headphones. Alabama Shakes are a lot to contain and on record they are a bit like a caged tiger, undoubtedly powerful, but nothing compared to the version in the wild. But, at the points where the production sometimes does not show them at their lively best, I would suggest turning Boys & Girls up louder and dancing more, because if you ever feel like you are lacking in energy then this album is more than enough to pick you right up.
Howard and her hypnotic drawl will be the stars of this record, but the plodding bass and the soft pulses of guitar give the album its charm, and, together, Alabama Shakes are bringing that classic Americana rhythm back into popular culture and giving music its soul back.