Is anyone else completely in shock that this is Alabama Shakes’ first full-length album? The fanfare that’s surrounded them even before the release of Boys & Girls is unprecedented — sold out shows around the country, feature performances at South by Southwest, and (here’s a sign of the times for you) over 41,000 Facebook fans. Yeah, it’s serious. Somehow, before they’ve even begun, they’ve become the hottest thing since microwavable burritos. How could a 4-song EP released in September do this? There is something to be said for the power of soul. Their live show has been reported as nothing short of remarkable, but until now it’s been unclear how that energy would translate onto a full-length record.
The quartet has been playing together since they met in high school in 2009 Athens, Alabama (they have since added keyboardist Ben Tanner to the mix to help on stage). It seemed an immediate connection to them at the time – whipping up a slew of covers in a week’s time to play their first gig — but as they learned each other’s varying musical styles, desires and talents, they wrote some songs and started honing their own sound. It took some time to get noticed, though. In singer Brittany Howard’s own words, “Four months ago we couldn’t even get a gig in our own home town.” But that changed quickly — their song “You Ain’t Alone” was streamed on a popular music blog and led to interest from record labels and producers within days. Now, a quick look at the tour page on their website reveals sold out shows from their home state of Alabama all the way to Brussels, Belgium, weeks before the actual release of their first proper album. They’ve only made a few songs public through the aforementioned EP and a couple of other free downloads along the way. It’s a wonder if their quick rise toward the top is attributable to the power of the Internet or just good, old-fashioned organic word of mouth. I like to think the latter, but Napster taught us a few years ago that it must be a combination of the two.
The opening track and first single, “Hold On”, starts slow with a simple drumbeat. Then the guitars kick in, and the bass adds some punch. It’s easy and fun to follow, but it’s Howard’s voice that turns you on. Somewhat ambiguous at first, she bawls into the microphone, desperate and honest, “Bless my heart and bless my soul / didn’t think I’d make it / to twenty-two years old.” But it’s quickly clear that this song of desperation is also one of thankfulness and hope. “There must be someone / up above / saying come on, Brittany / You got to come on up / You got to hold on.” She holds her notes like a wolf howling into the night, a 23-year-old with the heart of Tom Fogerty and soul of Aretha Franklin. Perhaps the thing holding them together is that the band’s entire presence somehow embodies that combination, as well.
The song was actually borne out of an improvisation, the riff coming on stage and Howard’s vocals being made up on the spot. Bassist Zac Cockrell recalls, “the crowd started singing with her like it was a song they already knew.” Since gaining structure, “Hold On” is a steam engine roller coaster of feeling — finding energy at times and at others slowing to a crawl under Howard’s direction.
At some point the question will probably arise in your head, are they an R&B revival act, or a rock ‘n’ roll band? It’s a question that even the band struggles with — some of the members leaning in one direction and others leaning the opposite. But in actuality they fit perfectly well into both genres, straddling a line with their legs and reaching their arms into several others — country, soul and gospel.
These styles shine through scattered throughout the record, but they all come together in what may be their most powerful tune, “You Ain’t Alone”. The song was the catalyst to their sudden uprising for good reason. It’s as much a revival of a musical style as it is a dedication to a classic recording sound, an old reverberation in the guitar and vocals that modern technology sadly did away with. As usual, Howard’s vocals are the focal point of the tune. She croons, “You ain’t alone, so why are you lonely?” and she howls, “Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve?” The song, which starts with slow choppy guitar strums, gains steam steadily, Howard’s pleas getting more intense with every line — a call-out to people afraid to love — until Heath Fogg pulls and throws his guitar through the twisted pines that the rest of the band has pulled together. The band plays a crashing outro as they all sing together in classic rock ‘n’ roll style, “You, you ain’t alone / just let me be/ your ticket home”, with Howard taking vocal solos until her voice runs dry.
But those two songs, though highlights, do not stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Every track on the album is able to stand on its own two feet. From the ballads “I Found You” and title track “Boys & Girls” (which, by the way, is breathtaking), to the rocker “I Ain’t the Same”, they draw influences across the board — masters new and old, Cee-Lo to Fiona Apple, Otis Redding to Led Zeppelin. The album rocks, but there is no shortage of tenderness. Essentially, it is a near perfect blend of blues and rock ‘n’ roll of times both past and present. It’s an album you can listen to over and over again, and still somehow marvel at the familiar voice of Brittany Howard every time. Boys & Girls is more than a debut album. It’s an introduction to a band you thought you knew for years, but are just fortunate enough to meet now.