Album Review: Alabama Shakes - Boys and Girls

by Mark Wheat

Imagine if a hot group of Mad Men-style PR/marketing gurus and creative designers had sat down last year and decided these are the main resume lines that a buzz band needs to fill for everyone to start taking notice of them:

1. Must have a retro vibe (preferably with a back story of hard times in the deep south) with rootsy kids singing the blues.

2. Storming but tiny CMJ festival performance in New York City that starts a blog whisper in the fall.

3. Major showcase performance for NPR at SXSW in the spring, when everyone is looking for the next big thing.

4. Take an early trip to the UK — after all, they lap this kind of stuff up at NME!

5. Forge a connection — any connection — with Jack White, pre-eminent holder of the flame.

Job done, ladies and gentlemen: The Alabama Shakes.

This album, then, is our chance to ask: are they all hype or the real deal? The answer is that they're the real deal. For me, their talent jumps out of the radio no matter which song off this album that we play. But the true pleasure of this band is found in sitting with the whole album and giving it a deep listen. It rewards your presence — it is real and authentic.

In fact it's so real that a few times I wondered, "Is this really REAL? As in live?!" In the sound of Brittany Howard's voice you almost believe that she sang the songs in order and in one take. She's even raspy in places, as if it was a struggle to get through it. The beautifully balanced, structured and paced set of songs takes you on a journey with her.

It starts off with a bang, literally sending you into orbit with "Hold On." Not all the songs are loud, fast rockers, but they keep going with a propulsive, brash confidence. It's a rollicking good time all the way through another standout, "You Ain't Alone," where it seems Howard reaches her passion peak. She takes a break for breath with the next song "Goin' To The Party," where she whispers the invitation. "Heartbreaker" is a slow burn, but beats her previous heights. It's the most soulful — and that's saying something — moment of the entire trip. Almost spent, they slow down again for the thoughtful, uncertain, pensive title track, before bouncing back with enough glee to ward off disaster through the last three songs. At less than 40 minutes total, the album doesn't over stay its welcome by one note. Tight. Authentic. Worth the trip and the deep listen... but also a possible party soundtrack for the summer!

The band has worked with White, who asked them to play a gig at his Nashville store and record a single for Third Man Records. Now they're supporting him on tour. Since he's just had his first #1 album, it's a great time to be aligned with him! Like Jack, they're respectful of roots and legacy, but also try to push and twist the traditions into something new and surprising. It would be nice if they can bring a piano player on tour, as the guests excel on several songs, including "Be Mine" (which would make a great Faces song)!

All the other "must-have PR points" have occurred too. But as Alabama Shakes told NME, their success is coming now because they've focused on sincerity, rather than trying to be original or different. Howard said, "A lot of people are like, 'I want to be different. I want to be original. I want to be an electronic band that mixes this and this,' instead of just writing songs together as people and being sincere about it."

When I saw them in Austin at this year's SXSW, they were still understandably tentative, even though the audience already knew the songs before the album was even out. Howard is an unusual, slightly gawky stage presence, and she could've had them eating out of her hand. But she held back and didn't overplay the familiarity that has already accrued for them. They want to be in it for the long haul. Fleeting success and creating the one big hit is not in the Alabama Shakes' lexicon, so the Mad Men types will have to find someone else. These boys and girl are for real.