TBJ’s Favorite Records of 2012: Alabama Shakes

All photos by Neil Mach

Both photos by Neil Mach

The Athens, Alabama-based quartet, Alabama Shakes, began their music careers by playing shaggy Led Zeppelin covers around the dive bars of Limestone County in 2009.

Brittany Howard, Zac Cockrell, Steve Johnson and Heath Fogg came to prominence following a successful show at CMJ Festival in October 2011, after which Jon Pareles of The New York Times compared Howard’s singing voice to that of Janis Joplin’s.

In November 2011 the band signed to Rough Trade Records in the United Kingdom, and ATO Records in the United States, and they went on to release their first album Boys & Girls on April 9, 2012.

Brittany Howard, the band’s lead singer and guitarist, was a shy teenager. She privately wrote songs for her own pleasure, and learned to play solitary guitar. She became friends with Zac Cockrell, and eventually allowed him to enter into her world of loneliness, and to listen to her intimate compositions. They soon began a musical collaboration (with Cockrell playing bass) and were able to form a band (originally known simply as “The Shakes”) when they were joined by Steve on drums and Heath on guitar.

Boys & Girls is the product of those wobbly beginnings. A reminder, perhaps, of the lost innocence and shared shyness of those early days.

“Hold On” starts with a heartbeat of firecracker rhythms. These rattle and shake like corn husks in a torrent. The deliberate notes and the laborious pace of this song may remind the listener of  The White Stripes. Rippling gurgles of slimy guitar parade around the verse, beginning so softly, and you soon realize that there are faithful vintage hues trapped inside this song. They are like blue bottles trapped in sepia-colored jam jar. “ I didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old…” Howard suggests, sagely. And her words create delicate bubbles of sound. She feels choked with emotion. And you will too. When you have been held down long enough by those long greasy vocals, and the sputtering guitars, you are kindly released. To find your own way back to salvation. Unharmed.

“Hang Loose” buzzes along. It’s an open invitation to board a plane for Waikiki. And everything feels aesthetically pleasing about this happy trip. Shimmers of cymbals are fresh, whilst vibrant beats ease your mind. Your tensions will be gently massaged away.

“Rise to the Sun” is a homesick yarn, spun about the tendrils of a springy, percussive sound. When the shiny vocals rise up to greet you, the glory is unrestrained. A zinging brightness is expressed in the slow cumulative power of Howard, as it lures you toward a golden noon.

The track “You Ain’t Alone” has a rigid and almost unresponsive beat. The sharpness of this number rhythmically anticipates the heartache to come. Gallant keyboards rise in a waltzing chime, and then the true hair-raising nature of the lead vocals begin to hatch the first eggs of doubt in your head. Are you alone because you want to be? Are you alone because you are just not good enough for anyone else? The “Joe Cocker”-styled vocals are forcefully dragged out, and raggedly displayed. It is a bitter world of combined loneliness. “1-2-3, are you too scared to dance for me?” Howard demurely asks. And we think we know the answer.

The shorter track of the album, “Goin’ To the Party” (it runs at just 1:46), is a much more fragile song. With an accompaniment as polished as a rodeo cowboy’s boot stud, and with vocals that are as thin as paper wafers. There is almost an empty, sacramental sadness hidden within the folds. It is about a sacrificial love tended by a daughter. And it is about a parent who is routinely letting himself, and everyone else, down. But everything is going to be fine, because there will always be someone there “to carry [him] on home…”

On “Heartbreaker” we are greeted by a chattering rustle of drums and more of that ponderous waltzing. The vocals are angry…almost indescribably so. There is weeping. There is also anguish here. The song describes the kind of sadness that overwhelms your whole body. It shakes you up completely with grief. “Why, why did you have to slice me so wide, baby?” she asks the heartbreaker.

The title and stand-out track, “Boys & Girls” is about the confusion and misunderstandings created by a girl who treasures a guy as her best friend. It cannot work. It is so unnatural. Everyone thinks so. Why does society frown upon this innocent friendship? It is so unfair. Howard varies her focus to meet the challenges of this song. The main theme rises exorbitantly from the slow-stepping beginnings. This song is as much a country and western number as it is vintage soul. The recorded version of this never quite allows Howard to reach her full expressive potential (as she does when she performs live), but it is a powerful reminder that “Out of the strong comes forth sweetness.”

Eloquently punctuated, “Be Mine” is a song with more wrenching power behind its vocals. The guitars sound like vintage Keith Richards. Skirmishing highs are carefully underpinned by sub-liquid bass notes and fluent keys. Then “I Ain’t The Same” has a full bed-frame of percussion, together with tiny tears of guitar cling to the tremors of the vocals. The playful nature of this song will make you smile.

The album concludes with “On Your Way” and a grizzled fuzz of corrugated guitars fold in close to a regurgitating rhythm and some winsome, heartfelt vocals. This is a fitting conclusion to an accomplished album of songs. This new band has managed to tighten up analog-era soul, and then combined those sounds with the crunchiest blues you have ever heard.

Alabama Shakes has created something touching and very personal with this first album. If you like to feel the sand in your eyes, smoke in the lungs, and a dull ache in your heart–if you want to feel painfully alive–then this is the group for you. They are destined for great things.



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