Music Review: Alabama Shakes

Avi Small

For years we’ve read obituaries for rock music. In 2006, published an article declaring, “Rock and roll is dead. RIP.” The obituaries for rock ‘n’ roll music have kept coming since, as Lady Gaga and Rihanna’s brand of hybrid electro-dance pop takes over the pop music scene. Yet even as the decline of rock ‘n’ roll is lamented, there remain some – yes, few – bands committed to the genre.

Alabama Shakes is one such group. This Alabama band, fronted by Brittany Howard, recently released its first album, Boys & Girls. Their commitment to rock ‘n’ roll is clear. Originally created as a cover band of artists like the Rolling Stones and AC/DC, this first album from Alabama Shakes firmly situates the band within that tradition. The album has a decidedly low-key feel; it is neither slick nor overproduced, and the sound is analog and approachable. The band came to prominence because of the strength of their live performances, and their understated approach to recording and producing is clear.

Boys & Girls is an album that feels like a throwback. Opening with “Hold On,” the raucous lead single from the album, Boys & Girls consistently sounds familiar without being generic. Howard, the lead singer, has a voice like a hybrid Macy Gray/Janis Joplin that sounds equally at home in shouty, up-tempo songs like “I Ain’t the Same” and earnest, soul-inflected ballads like “You Ain’t Alone.” Howard shout-sings or whisper-sings many of the lyrics, giving Boys & Girls a plaintive and intimate feeling. The rest of the band – guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson – are competent and confident musicians, with Johnson’s drumming especially notable as an equally loud and emotive response to Howard’s vocals.

Rock ‘n’ roll may be on its last legs, but Boys & Girls proves that at least one band is looking to keep it alive. It is an excellent, blues-inflected rock album that reminds listeners why the genre was at one point so relevant and how it could be once more. Alabama Shakes’ debut album does have some issues: the intentionally folksy production occasionally just sounds sloppy, and the album’s short run time (only 36 minutes) feels rushed. Even so, Boys & Girls marks Alabama Shakes’ ascendance and lives up to the hype pushed on them by their hipster-cred endorsements from the likes of Jack White. Boys & Girls is a great album. It’s worth a listen.

Avi Small