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Alabama Shakes - Cook up a potent rock 'n' soul stew
on 9 April 2012
The unmistakable presence of giant musical ghosts from the past haunt this record. The echoes are everywhere and they suggest the finest of pedigrees. Yet the Alabama Shakes have that extra dimension which is a key feature of all the contenders for the bands that somehow define the moment. They are hot, they are talked about in hushed tones and while there is nothing essentially new to be found on their debut "Boys and Girls" they have taken the familiar and infused it with the brilliant musical feat of making it sound new and original. Anyone listening to the superb debut single "Hold on" will be immediately struck by the homage to the soulful southern stew once concocted in that legendary studio Muscle Shoals in a small northwest corner of the bands home state. Here Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge and Bobby Womack created a distinct sound that famous bands like the Rolling Stones and more latterly the Black Keys have sought to replicate. This mix of rock and soul is all over "Boys and Girls" like a rash and the names Otis Redding and Janis Joplin are equally obvious influences. Add to this potent force that the Alabama Shakes have a primary weapon, a sort of musical nuclear option in the form of vocalist Brittany Howard a veritable force of nature and star in the making. Stop what your doing and check out the band on the Net at their now legendary Boston Arms gig in London in February 2012 and above all else seek out their cover of Led Zeppelin's "How many more times". You will be left speechless at the brazen energy which doesn't so much light up the stage as completely own it.
Indeed if your reviewer has one complaint about this great debut album it doesn't quite press into the vinyl grooves the primal quality of the bands on stage presence and the sheer level of raucousness they summon up. Equally its an album that starts so strong that they set themselves an impossible standard to sustain over these eleven songs although to give them credit they try their damnedest. Inevitably you are drawn to the first two songs not least the superb single "Hold on". It is an instant classic, a song, which someone should have, written before and a performance by a band so tight you couldn't prize them apart. It is a rock 'n' soul standard in the making with its brilliant dirty sluggish riff and Howards sassily delivered opening line "Bless my heart, and bless my soul, didn't think I would make it, to twenty two years old". It is as if the Drive by Truckers have invited Otis Redding on stage for a jam and recorded it. The second song "I found you" is far more soulful and echoes the sort of Motown inspired laments that the late Amy Winehouse took to stratospheric levels on "Black to black". The song has a hook that could have carried on well beyond its meagre three minutes but the sign of a great band is to recognise the right level of economy and no song on this album tips over into the 5-minute territory. Further into the album you will also find a brilliant soul ballad "You ain't alone" which proves that Howard has a talent which should be celebrated and nurtured. If she is this good now what the future holds could be remarkable. Sadly the rest of the album doesn't quite reach the heights of these three songs. The short "Going to a party" is slightly pointless bearing in mind the songs the band has in their extensive live armoury. The penultimate song "I ain't the same" is fine but has been done many times before. Yet you can forgive them these missteps when you hear the fine conclusion to this album the much rockier "On your way" which is a splendid way to finish.
Bearing in mind the sheer level of outlandish hyperbole around the Alabama Shakes in the US it may be the case that Boys and Girls was destined never to meet this weight of expectation. Nevertheless whilst this is no rock masterpiece it is a great debut. You also feel that once they are able to capture the sheer power of their live concerts in the recording studio then the Alabama Shakes will just about blow anything else off the stage. The enticing prospect they conjure up is truly delicious.