Hanging Loose with Alabama Shakes

Somehow, I managed to avoid the hype machine that preceded the release of “Boys & Girls,” the debut album from Alabama Shakes. After reading all the reviews and stories of the band’s meteoric rise to fame, I was a little skeptical. Band with a soulful-voiced frontwoman makes it big resurrecting the R&B sounds of the 1960s? Been there, done that, pretty much once every year or two since the new millennium rekindled interest in sweet soul music. Joss Stone, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Adele, etc, etc. Besides the fact that this band actually hails from America, what is there to get excited about?

Quite a bit, it turns out. After reading a rave live show review on No Depression, I finally caved and picked up Boys & Girls. Yes, the sound is familiar. But this act offers a bit more than the rest of the neo-soul bumper crop. First and foremost, Alabama Shakes is an actual band, versus a vocal personality virtually plugged into a Pro Tools-assembled collection of samples and session players — not to take unfair potshots at truly talented individuals like Adele, but there’s something to be said for an actual group of musicians crafting their own unique sound through hours of honest practice and gigging. Brittany Howard on vocals and guitar, Heath Fogg on lead guitar, Zac Cockrell on drums, and Steve Johnson on bass. I feel obliged to mention all of the members by name because Alabama Shakes is truly a team effort, the sum of its very talented parts.

Brittany Howard is of course front and center, with her Mavis Staples-meets-Janis Joplin-collides-with-Rosetta Tharpe voice and uplifting (even when sad) songs of love, heartbreak, and hope. The band lays down a loose but solid groove. Think southern garage soul — the Black Keys invited to sit in with Booker T & the MG’s…a guest spot reserved for the resurrected soul of Hubert Sumlin…and some Muscle Shoals thrown in for good measure. Alabama Shakes has put in good time listening to the greats, and managed to still come away with their own sound. The warm, vintage production values are also a nice touch. I imagine Boys & Girls sounds killer on vinyl.

It’s a solid debut album, though there’s still room for Alabama Shakes to grow and further up the ante. There isn’t a weak tune on Boys & Girls, although some songs blend together in the absence of a distinctive lyrical or instrumental hook. Heath Fogg does an admirable job of not crowding the mix with unnecessary guitar wankery, but there’s definitely ample room for him to step out a bit more and lay down some memorable riffs a la Keith Richards or Chuck Berry (the bonus track “Heavy Chevy” is an example of what that might sound like).

But even if the Shakes don’t tweak anything and stick to the current blueprint, I’ll still be looking forward to the next album. Let’s hope the music industry machine doesn’t end up watering down their mojo to squeeze out a few more dollars worth of airplay. This is a great band deserving all the attention it’s been getting.

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