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The current landscape of hip American music is like a lyric out of a classic Bob Dylan song about the changing times. Old is new, and nerdy is cool. It is in this environment that the Alabama Shakes have flourished like the imperceptible germs on the tips of your fingers when rubbed into a Petri dish and left to fester. A style that notched a bullseye smack dab in the middle of the wave of current popular appeal without sacrificing artistic purpose is the reason The Alabama Shakes are becoming an American music success story we can actually be proud of for once.
This rootsy, soulful rock band is bound together by the force known as Brittany Howard, part Janis Joplin, part Kimya Dawson, both poetic, and fanatically possessed. Whenever I think of the true embodiment of the word “soul” I think of an old black woman. Whether it’s an old black female singer, or young white male guitar player, if they truly want to have soul, they must have an old black woman trapped inside of them somewhere, with 1,000 injustices fighting back tears in world-torn eyes, and infinite wisdom bred from bad choices by the self and others. Soul is anger only semi-controlled, and that is what Brittany Howard has. (“I’ll fight the planet!” she proclaims in the song “Heartbreaker”. )
This is backed up by the rest of The Shakes, a solid group of musicians who know how to flesh out the vintage vibe Brittany’s original compositions are written to convey. This is a very youthful, energetic-sounding album, which is refreshing to hear coming from roots circles that generally are dominated by post-punk or indie rock-converted 30-somethings studying under gray-haired alt-country elders. The Alabama Shakes sound only a few steps outside of the garage, and that’s a great approach to hear with music that is textured to feel aged.
This their first full length album Boys & Girls has some fun moments and some rocking moments that really touch on a groove, and then some very deep, tearful moments. It is exquisitely arranged where Brittney is never buried by anything else going on, though even if the mix was imbalanced, it would still be impossible not to be drawn to her presence in the music. I guess you would call that magnetic. In such a shallow, simple-minded world, she would command a room full of magazine models. Brittney is bold; a power generator of a human earth being.
The best part about Boys & Girls is the promise you can hear in this music. Man, I love when you can hear promise, when you can enjoy how good the music is here and now, but also spy the branches where something even better will spring from.
There’s nothing really country about The Alabama Shakes, though some country foundations are there if you listen deep. And with their soul and roots sound, you could slip them between a Wayne “The Train” Hancock and Scott H. Biram on a bill and nary an eyelash would be batted. Maybe a guilty pleasure for some country fans, certainly a better music choice for the masses, we shall see what fate awaits The Alabama Shakes as the fickle winds of style and appeal blow back and forth in the American conscious. We will also see if any band or scene or style is big enough to contain Brittany Howard, or if she will burn too bright to sustain.
The Alabama Shakes are not for everyone, but I struggle to find a wart to point at.
Two guns up!
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