When they burst onto the music scene in 1995, Alabama 3 kept listeners guessing. For a start, they’re not from Alabama, nor are there three members in the band. On top of this, the UK group are best known for the stylistically eclectic brand of music, which blends blues, electronica, hip-hop, jazz, country and rock. The band’s sound is among the most unique of any of their contemporaries.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, given that they have spent their career running with an effective, trademark style, that Alabama 3 would continue to do so on their 12th studio album, Blues.
Blues is both an apt name for the record and a slightly misleading one. While the record is at its most captivating when the group are integrating blues influences into their work, Alabama 3 go far beyond the constraints of this single genre. Whether it comes in the form of repeated choral hooks, macabre lyrics and energy or literal monologues about what the blues is, the band’s loyalty to the blues is admirable.
More impressive, however, is the way they are able to meld the blues with other styles without compromising their bluesy ethos. “Exodus (Movement of War People)”, with its combination of harmonica solos, simple vocal musings and synthesisers fits the bill here in classy fashion. The track is, at times, calamitous and apocalyptic in its energy, though never without tact or purpose. The band is at the peak of its powers, and perhaps their name is at its most misleading, when they allow themselves to become completely immersed in their party-style atmosphere. This is clearly the work of many more than just three people. And it’s polished work at that.
But Alabama 3 aren’t just here to play raucously loud, outlaw blues-hybrids. On this album, they prove themselves as being capable of transferring their genre fusions into more subdued settings. This level of restraint is evident on “Forever in Blues”, when the blues shines through with more grit than ever before, albeit in a more mellow context. At the same time, modernised keyboard sounds ensure that the track is never wholly faithful to one specific style.
To that end, the band’s love of old-style sounds is never used an excuse for them to slip into habit. While it would be tempting to let the no-frills, simplicity of the blues mask lazy songwriting, the band are refreshingly conscious of refining their sound and going in a slightly new direction on every track. The record’s closer, “Turn The Jukebox On” is a case in point, when vocalist Larry Love tries his hand at subdued hip-hop verse. The band are experimenting until literally the very end.
This experimentation, however, works best when the blues is still used as a point of reference, to give grounding to their work. The overly melodic vocal lines at the beginning of “Lost and Found” are one of the album’s few weak moments, feeling as if they belong in a cheesy ’80s ballad rather than amongst the gritty work of these blues rock veterans. Nevertheless, after 20 years and 12 albums, Alabama 3 are still as hard-working, mysterious and punchy as ever. Yes, they’re running with the intricate formula that we’ve come to expect. But in their defence, it’s a bloody good formula.