"Wear your dancing shoes. Bring a sweat rag. Leave your fear. It's gonna be a different kind of night..."
-- Brittany Howard on what to expect from an Alabama Shakes show
That quote from Brittany Howard, lead singer of the blues-rock band Alabama Shakes, is her down-home description of what their live shows are like. It could just as easily, however, describe the group's debut album, Boys & Girls.
Now I'm sure you're wondering what a blues-rock band from Athens, Alabama is doing on SoulBounce. Well, Alabama Shakes aren't your typical blues-rock band -- not by a long shot. First of all, they are fronted by an African-American female lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard, a refreshingly unpretentious homegirl who can sing her face off. Secondly, I think that the blues and traditional R&B genres deserve much more recognition and support, especially from the African-American community. Case in point, I went to see R&B legend Bettye Lavette recently and, other than my family, I could count "us" on one hand -- but that's another post for another day.
Boys & Girls came about literally by popular demand. After blogger Justin Gage posted a track by the band on his site, Brittany Howard was inundated with emails from record labels, publishers, and managers. Word spread on and off-line, and suddenly the band's popularity skyrocketed. In fact, four of the tracks on Boys & Girls were originally part of an EP on BandCamp, which the band hurried and released to have something -- anything -- to give their rapidly-expanding fan base. As Howard told Billboard, "They felt like we came out of nowhere, which was kind of true because we didn't have an internet presence whatsoever." She continued, "We were just playing shows the old-fashioned way. That's how it started. "
Thankfully Boys & Girls is not overproduced. I'm almost certain they all got in the studio and laid down the tracks as a band, not instrument by instrument. Guitarist Zac Cockrell and bassist Heath Fogg's licks aren't altered with a bunch of pedals or filters. They just stand flat-footed and play.
By far, the standout track on this album is the textbook blues ballad "You Ain't Alone." Howard's blissfully mournful vocals blend perfectly with the rhythm section's melody, and together the band builds to the crescendo of power chords seamlessly. This took me back to the many wonderful hole-in-the-wall blues clubs I've been to in Chicago.
Let me pause here and address Miss Brittany Howard and that raw unspoiled voice of hers, which New York Times music critic Jon Pareles called "a lightning bolt in blue jeans." The natural temptation would be to compare her to Janis Joplin on the rock side of things, or legends like Etta James and Koko Taylor on the blues side. No, no, and no again. That pure, beautifully-tortured, soul-wrenching, soprano growl comes from the cinder block back porch of your grandma's house out in the country, in the void of a pitch-black humid summer night down South. If you must have a stylistic equivalent to compare to, it may surprise you that I would say Prince. Think of Prince's wails when he begins the second verse on "Purple Rain" -- that "honey I know, I know, I know times are changin'" -- then listen to "You Ain't Alone" and you will hear the similarities.
The writing is so refreshingly honest on the love song "I Found You" when Howard sings "This isn't sometime/it's for always." The tempo on this one rises and falls at the right time, and builds to Van Morrison smoothness on the hook. I like that Alabama Shakes also know when to drop out and let a tambourine keep the pulse going. Howard has the ability to change the essence of her voice to deliver a song like this one, without changing the substance of her voice. Some vocalists of her caliber think they have to "go to church" or do a bunch of runs on every single song, but thankfully Howard chooses her vocal battles wisely.
"Rise to the Sun" is so bright and bouncy it could almost be a roots reggae song. The guitarist mutes the notes a la Bob Marley, and the organ ever so gently supports the rhythm section on this ode to the everyday working man or woman.
The band delivers "Goin to the Party" as if we are eavesdropping on the conversation of teens sneaking out to a juke joint. Everyone can relate this joy of young rebellion set to music as they lead in with "Night is good when you feel like a child/and people tell us you need to straighten out." Howard vocally tip-toes across the lyrics, as if she's trying to hold in the giddy triumph of going to a forbidden party. Finally, no verse better captures Southern culture in four bars than "Gotta take me home now/know ya ain't drinkin water/ Gotta take me back/Cause I'm still somebody's daughter." Outkast could have spit that as a rhyme, and it still would make perfect sense.
This is a solid first album, and so refreshingly pure and honest. This is a band who, by their own admission, formed because they were among the few in their small town who loved to play music. So take Brittany Howard's advice: get your dancing shoes, your sweat rag, put a cold drink in a Mason jar, put on Boys & Girls and get ready for a different kind of night.