One thing that we love to do with contemporary bands is to describe them as mixtures of established bands. The connections we make help us take what we know well and apply it to something fresh or novel. On the other hand, I find myself holding a grudge against these comparisons, because it takes something I know well—that I’m comfortable with—and changes its place in my mind, even if minutely. The comparisons also take away from a new act’s identity and freshness, something that artists more often than not are striving for (even if rarely achieving).
The Alabama Shakes is a band that is very easy to connect to predecessors. Upon hearing the first few tracks from their debut album Boys & Girls, there are familiar sonic qualities that remind of southern rock giants like The Allman Brothers, Motown staples like Otis Redding, an eerie likeness to Janis Joplin, and the rough-and-tumble relentlessness of something like The Black Keys. These similarities at times feel like homage (“You Ain’t Alone” channels Otis Redding), but at others feels like it doesn’t give a damn about anything that came before it (take a listen to the appropriately named “I Ain’t the Same”).
Past the comparisons though, the band from Athens, Alabama has a dynamic sound. They can go from sounding solitary and reflective to robust and full. With lyrics that can be shallow or deep depending on your mood. The guitar riffs, bass lines, drums, and melodies do the same; the product can be what you want it to be. I don’t feel pushed around with these songs, just given some paths to walk—or run—and let alone to listen as I please. I’ve already been able to enjoy Boys & Girls while road-tripping, running, and sitting by the lake.
One quality that I really appreciate about this album is that the individual songs stand on their own, but at the same time blend into a cohesive progression from one track to the next. It’s unfortunately becoming rare that albums are designed and inspired enough to warrant an end-to-end listen. Maybe the reason I’m enamored with this album is that it takes away my compulsion to hit ‘next’ or ‘shuffle’ on the iPod.
The band, led by singer/songwriter and guitarist Brittany Howard, is rounded out with guitarist Heath Fogg (could you have a better guitarist’s name there buddy?), bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson. Alabama Shakes also features some great keys in most of their songs on Boys & Girls, which adds to the overall aesthetic of the tunes.
By the way, I know that this album has been out for months now. The band has already made the talk show circuit, and is playing at Lollapalooza this weekend in Chicago, and to sold-out shows all over the country. But this is about the time when the hipsters start jumping ship, and non-temporary listeners can really get a hold.