The rise of the Alabama Shakes in the last few months has been a peculiar one. The band formed a few years back, playing dive bars in the south with setlists consisting mostly of covers ranging from Led Zeppelin to James Brown. They released a four-song EP on their own last fall, which gained considerable buzz, leading to a countless number of festival gigs, an opening slot for Jack White, a national television appearance on Conan, and perhaps the biggest honor in blues-rock, a spot in a Zales commercial.
All of this momentum has led to today’s release of their debut LP Boys & Girls, a record that certainly holds its own against lofty expectations.
The relatively brief 11-track effort does a fantastic job of highlighting all the facets of the Shakes’ style, from classic rock to neo-soul to rockabilly to the blues to even country music. They waste no time hitting you with all of these angles, opening the album with “Hold On,” a note-perfect nostalgic rock and roll song that makes for an appropriate introduction to the quartet.
Boys & Girls isn’t short on good old fashion rock and roll tunes. Tracks like “I Found You,” “Hang Loose,” and “I Ain’t the Same” are filled with bluesy licks and funky bass lines, evoking raw energy and fun that can be found few places outside the dive bars where the Shakes honed their craft. But surprisingly enough, the album shines the most when it slows down. On the title track “Boys & Girls,” lead singer Brittany Howard emotes a simple yet heartbreaking tale of growing older with the grace of an Etta James ballad. The crown jewel of this record, “You Ain’t Alone,” gives us another soulful storytelling song that builds to finish that Otis Redding would be proud of.
The strength of front-woman Howard’s vocals is undoubtably the highlight of every track on Boys & Girls. There isn’t a moment on the 36-minute triumph where you question her authenticity, as there is passion in each syllable she utters. The comparisons to Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and Redding are unavoidable, and while the similarities are a little too close for comfort on certain tracks, a dash of these influences is more than welcomed in today’s age of rock music.
The intimacy of Howard’s lyrics is also a welcomed surprise, being proud and passionate without pretension. The band isn’t exactly treading new water with themes of growing up and finding your groove as a young adult, but it all comes off as a lot more believable considering where these guys have come from in such a short amount of time. And I’m thrilled to see where they end up next.
Key Tracks: “Hold On,” “Hang Loose,” Boys & Girls,” “You Ain’t Alone”
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