Alabama Shakes ‘Boys and Girls’ Album Review

If 2010 was the big breakout year for The Black Keys ‘Brothers’ record, and if 2011 signified the artistic pinnacle of the great PJ Harvey, then 2012 is destined, musically, to be remembered as the year that Alabama Shakes first appeared on the national scene. No mistake about it Boys and Girls is that kind of record; once you’ve heard it, you’re going to be talking about it. Now you might argue about whether Alabama Shakes is merely a very good band or an extraordinary one, but if you go so far as to dispute the vocal prowess of the lead singer, Brittany Howard, well, you’ll have some kind of fight on your hands.

Some say Brittany is the living proof that Janis Joplin and Howlin’ Wolf met up somewhere for a makeout fest beyond mortal description, while others summon up the memories of Etta James and Nina Simone. Brittany is soulful and she’s bluesy, rocked out and introspective all at once, as well as hard to categorize. Retro-soul she is not, as that label is a little too calculated, precious in fact, whereas Alabama Shakes appears to lack any sort of pretension. This is a group of high school friends from the deep Southern town of Athens, Alabama, with a population of some 22,000 people. They’ve been playing together in little joints and bowling alleys for about four years, and what they have going for them is authenticity. Brittany writes most of the lyrics; the arrangements are strictly home-grown, by the other band members. She commented recently on the controversy over the retro-soul label some have put on the group:

All my songs are real songs; they’re pretty well autobiographical. I think this whole thing is silly. Music is just music and people complicate it too much. And, really, I don’t know who we can possibly be except us.” – Brittany Howard

Hyped though they are, Alabama Shakes have the chops to be more than a flavour of the year for a long time to come. Need proof? Well, there is the timeless authority behind the staunch blues rocker, ‘I Ain’t the Sun’, the tripped-out delirium of ‘On Our Way’, both of which roll around in the same slop of the Stones’ Let it Bleed.

None of the album cuts lack for energy or intensity. Even the quiet moments are palpable beauties. ‘You Ain’t Alone’ is shattering in the way Etta James used to cut ’em. Howard has many miles to walk before she is fit for Etta analogies but if she continues to belt out numbers like this, she’ll eat those miles up in no time. ‘Heartbreaker’ is another in the Etta lineage; at no time do the songs sound like cheap, uninspired imitations. The pure blues essence is alive and well in the soul of this band.

“Alone” is the emotional centerpiece, a loose, blues bar romp featuring cathouse piano and a slow burning guitar. The band plays it relatively close to the chest, allowing their star vocalist to sparkle in wild whiskey abandon.

Looking for a perfect summer rock album? Grab some pork chops and gravy, pop the top on a beer and press play on Boys and Girls. Whether you fall for its charms long term or not, this is likely going to be the defining party album of 2012.