Review: Alabama Shakes – ‘Boys and Girls’

alabama shakes coverBe Mine’. No point faffing about here, that is absolutely the song you need to hear today. And the only way that’s going to happen is if you get hold of ‘Boys and Girls’. Sure you could download it, but in this case, that would just be cheating yourself of so, so much more that this record has to offer.

‘Be Mine’ thrusts itself at you as the pinnacle of this record, swinging loose and steady, rolling and flowing and building like a blues explosion, taking a strength and a swagger from that moment when you’ve found the courage in you to tell somebody to simply be yours. …I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with Alabama Shakes, the band with the wrought iron soul..

Coming out of Athens, Alabama, singer and guitarist Brittany Howard and bass man Zac Cockrell found they shared a love of golden age soul and rock ‘n’ roll. After-school jam sessions and fortuitous party meet-ups soon saw drummer Steve Johnson join, quickly followed by Heath Fogg, a guitarist bowled over by their early demos. Several explosive shows and a spirited, state-wide round of “have you heard this band?” later, the band found themselves making their first record. So the legend goes.

Hold On’, a rebel yell of a rocker, is our first taste of the staggering range and depth of emotion in Brittany Howard’s voice. She’s hurting and she’s clinging to the last scraps of hope that there’s a better future to come for her. Now, when I say Howard has a belter of a voice, I don’t mean she warbles and bounces it all over the shop like Mariah Carey. I’m talking about a woman with a voice to soothe a troubled soul just as surely as she can shake the tiles off the roof delivering a line like “I don’t wanna wait!” What an instrument.

This is no solo act though; Cockrell, Fogg and Johnson are no blurry-faced session men. With a progressive slant to arrangements and a fiery passion for songwriting, they’re all for songs, with songs for all. Fogg and Howard play their guitars stuttered and trebly, with a healthy dusting of fuzz. Cockrell and Johnson rustle up a mean, supple rhythm section, ready to bend and bounce to the demands of these incredible songs.

There’s a lot you might recognise in their sound; Tony Joe White, Koko Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, even Kings of Leon, back when they were hairy and fresh out of the South. The first half gives us a feel for the Shakes’ own take on this swampy, soulsy blues rock, never short of a twang or two. Look out for rock-infused soul in ‘I Found You’ and ‘Hang Loose’; drink in that slow and soulful title track, moving like an Otis Redding ballad; then grab that second half with both hands and dunk your head in.

Even within the space of time it takes to get from one end of their debut to the other, this band have learned so much about themselves and what they want to do with their sound. ‘Heartbreaker’ is neatly devastating in the finest tradition of its rock namesakes from the likes of Free, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. ‘I Ain’t The Same’, ‘On Your Way’ and my personal favourite ‘Be Mine’ shake and rattle and roll with the precision and confidence of a band on their second or third album.

This whole second half of the record owes a lot more to their love of classic ‘70s rock; think Zeppelin’sPhysical Graffiti’ with a dash of ‘L.A. Woman’-era Doors. Alabama Shakes seem to share in those bands’ deep, knowing passion for blues, well aware that blues is still alive today because it moves and changes to keep from going stale. ‘Boys and Girls’ is a record that musicians will envy and listeners will adore. If there’s a bad word to be said against this music, you’re not going to read it here. Listen to this. Listen to it all.

Simon Moore

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