Boys & Girls

Alabama Shakes

ATO Records, 2012

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Great debut albums stand out in part because it feels miraculous that an unknown act could stride out of the wings and into the spotlight with both so much to say and so much craft evident in the saying. Some of the biggest names in music stumbled out of the gate and took time to find their creative feet. Rare is the act like The Pretenders—or Alabama Shakes—that feels like it bursts onto the stage fully formed and ready to conquer the world.

A year before this remarkable debut album arrived in April 2012, Alabama Shakes was known only in the bars they’d been playing throughout the southeast for the previous two years. The unsigned band was made up of four friends—Brittany Howard (lead vocals, guitar, piano), Heath Fogg (guitar, backing vocals), Zac Cockrell (bass, backing vocals) and Steve Johnson (drums, backing vocals)—who had met at East Limestone High School in Athens, Alabama. The homegrown quartet loved taking basic blues-rock forms and blowing them up to stadium size in the manner of Led Zeppelin, but with an authentic Delta rhythm and blues spirit that always felt beyond the reach of those four Englishmen.

After honing their performance chops at house parties and small clubs, The Shakes (as they were initially known) began tracking the songs that became Boys & Girls at producer Andrija Tokic’s studio in Nashville, recording live in the room in an effort to capture the energy of their shows. They funded the recordings themselves. In July 2011, music blogger Justin Gage (Aquarium Drunkard) posted an MP3 of their song “You Ain’t Alone” and the band’s situation transformed overnight. Record labels showered them with offers, Patterson Hood of local heroes Drive-By Truckers befriended them, and in September the band issued a four-song EP that garnered national attention. In quick succession they signed to the DBT’s own management team and then ATO Records.

Boys & Girls debuted at number 16 in the national charts before a physical release was even available, and would reach number 6 on the US Billboard 200 and number 3 on the UK Albums chart. The reasons why feel obvious once you begin to listen.

The album kicks off with lead single “Hold On,” a simply astonishing opening salvo. The band eases into view with amiable rhythm and blues-based bass / drums / guitar interplay before Howard enters with an equally bright and upbeat vocal—disarming you with charm right before she knocks you back on your heels with both words and performance. When she sings, gently, then ferociously, “You’ve got to hold on” she’s not just saying “Hang in there, kid”—she’s celebrating the fact that she’s alive, that she made it through all the traumas she had to navigate to make it to 22 years old. (For a biracial queer woman growing up in Northern Alabama, there were likely too many to count.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Hold On” is both the band’s musical mission statement and a simply remarkable piece of work, beautifully arranged and played, right down to the last moments, where Howard works down from an explosive crescendo to nearly a whisper, with the same intensity, but very different volume and phrasing; it’s both masterful and captivating. And the juxtaposition between the easy friendliness of the music and vocals and the harrowing story told between the lines of the lyric is kind of the whole point. This is real life: a combination of the terrible and the wonderful, the tragic and the comic, the moments of triumph and the moments of despair. That the song captures all of that, the essence of life, in four minutes, is some kind of magic.

And then you get ten more tracks.

“I Found You” has a classic soul foundation with a tambourine that’s pure Motown. “Hang Loose” features a bubbly guitar line that grows steadily more ebullient until it erupts into a driving, soaring chorus, capturing joy and melancholy in equal measures as Howard offers support to a friend. “Rise To The Sun” opens with dramatic drum strikes before moving into loping r&b verses that explode into the choruses as Howard sings about searching for home. The interplay between her vocal melodies and the band are just outstanding here; it’s a collective knockout. Then its thematic sequel “You Ain’t Alone” slows things down for an urgent tune that combines all of their influences—blues, rock, soul and a hint of gospel—as Howard sings “You ain’t alone / Please let me be your ticket home.”

At the album’s midpoint, the brief “Goin’ To The Party” presents a lilting country-blues with a thrummy pulse to the guitar, finger snaps for a backbeat and a clever arrangement featuring dropouts. Then “Heartbreaker” spotlights Howard’s piano and guest Mitch Jones’ organ as she sings her heart out on an explosive blues ballad. (At various points keyboards are contributed by Jones, Paul Horton, Ben Tanner and Micah Hulscher.) The title track is a rather gentle, lilting, traditional blues, leading into “Be Mine,” a spacious, sharply arranged, mid-tempo number with steady propulsion until, after the last chorus, the momentum builds and the band takes off into a soaring, ecstatic jam as Howard wails “Be my baby”—another quintessential Shakes moment.

Penultimate track “I Ain’t The Same” delivers airy, punchy, r&b as Howard asserts “No you ain’t gonna find me / ‘Cause I ain’t who I used to be” in an arrangement that builds and builds, getting bigger and stronger until it winks out just short of three minutes. Closer “On Your Way” starts out delicate and coy over a steady, strummy rumble, until at 45 seconds in the song takes off like a galloping racehorse. The musical range on display in just three minutes is again just astonishing.

Maybe the best thing about Alabama Shakes is that they’re a band. Yes, Howard’s voice is out front where it belongs, but the presentation of the songs elevates them just as much as her dynamic delivery. Every arrangement is tight and focused and rich with intention; this band gets in, kicks your butt for three minutes, and gets out. It doesn’t feel like there’s a wasted note.

The other side of that perfect balance is that, in Brittany Howard, the band has a voice and presence up front that’s both bracingly authentic and absolutely compelling. It’s simply not possible to listen to Howard sing and not feel something.

In addition to being one of the great debut albums of the young century, Boys & Girls set Alabama Shakes on a path that has seen them win Grammys, play festival main stages, and more recently, go on hiatus. Sometimes everybody needs a break and I respect that, but I sure hope this band will come back together again one day to make more music like what you’ll find here. There’s nothing else quite like it, and it is simply amazing.

Rating: A

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