New Alabama Shakes release wasted, inconsistent opportunity

Music Reviewer
[email protected]

The newest album from the Alabama Shakes does not compare to their last, self-titled release of 2011, which was nothing short of exciting.

They sounded real, approachable and unassuming, and the band immediately gained a spot on my informal ‘Artists to Watch’ list.

The Alabama Shakes (formerly known as ‘the Shakes’) are a young, soul-tinged southern rock band hailing from Athens, Alabama. Fronted by vocalist/songwriter Brittany Howard, the bohemian blues-rockers lends itself to hype.

From the analog richness of their lo-fi demos to the impassionate, quasi-Aretha soulful prowess of Brittany Howard to even their birthplace of Athens, Alabama, they seemed to exude authenticity.

By the end of 2011, the band popped up on numerous critics’ ‘best of’ list and even scored an endorsement from Jack White (who, if you’ve seen the film It Might Get Loud, is clearly the de facto authority on passionate, rootsy blues-rock.)

Rising out this torrent of hype is Boys & Girls, a 11-track, 36-minute long release brimming with the same bluesy vibes of their self-titled EP.

The band blends Otis Redding-influenced soul-blues, southern swamp rock grooves you’ll swear were lifted from John Fogerty himself.

The album is organic, no-frills analog based production – kind of like something you would expect from ‘true rockers’ like the White Stripes or the Black Keys. Their sound is emblemized by the extraordinarily captivating voice of front-woman Brittany Howard.

It resonates with a tincture of crooning vibrato, raucous growls, and ultimately a formidable bluesy-punch that at once immediately demands attention and yet, can verge on being dangerously overbearing.

The album begins with “Hold On,” easily the band’s strongest track and the album’s lead-off single.

It’s a brilliant piece that is the essence of the band’s unorthodox sound. Beginning with an unassuming, earthy swamp rock groove, the song climaxes into a feverish chorus of raspy, rambunctious rock n’ roll.

If you are one of those folks who believe ‘rock is dead’ (whatever that means), the track could very easily lead you to believe the band were the so-called ‘saviors’ of a dead genre. It’s that cool.
The following tracks “I Found You,” “Hang Loose,” and “Rise to the Sun” capture the same essence of “Hold On” – albeit while sounding slightly more prudent.

If “Hold On” captured the band is a heated, visceral frenzy, then the following tracks bottle up that sound into something slightly less meandering, but at the same time frustratingly restrained and formulaic.

While each are solid blues-rock tracks in their own respects, they find the band falling into a rut of predictable flourishes of verse-chorus-verse, quiet-loud-quiet framework that lacks the dynamism of the album’s leading track.

This becomes more apparent after the first half of the album.

The Shakes made the mistake of composing a top-heavy track-listing that leaves the second-half of the album littered with mostly predictable filler depends more on Howard’s voice to carry the pieces than anything else. “Heartbreaker,” the album’s seventh track, is stifled by the band’s roots rock formula and ultimately feels like a wasted opportunity.

It is a track that could be more, but the Shakes seem almost afraid to push themselves beyond anything other than Howard’s passionate howls. Sure, it sounds cool, but it leaves the band sounding more like the sum of its influences than something which reinvents the past into something exciting and perennial.

Perhaps savings Side B from sounding like a complete disappointment are the final two tracks “I Ain’t the Same” and “On the Way.”

While still formulaic and predictable, both tracks seem to regain the same energy found in “Hold On” and to a lesser extent on the remainder of the album’s first half. “I Ain’t the Same” is probably the closest the band comes, outside of “Hold On,” in truly capturing the raw and unfettered sound of their influences.

So, maybe the Alabama Shakes aren’t the saviors of rock n’ roll, but why should anyone expect them to be?

It is important to remember this is only a debut album, and it certainly sounds like one. The Shakes prudently tread along, making all of the right steps, reluctant to step outside of the shadow of Howard’s extraordinary voice.

Tracks like “Hold On,” “I Ain’t the Same” and “I Found You” are highlights and illustrate that the band certainly has the potential to be great, provided they can escape sounding like gimmicky, indie roots-rock.

When the album strikes, it can be downright sublime, but the inexperience of the Shakes is ultimately what weakens them.

The record feels too short and hastily put together in light of all of the hype the band has received as of late.

It prevents them from truly pushing these songs into formidable, powerful, and resonating pieces.

So, should you believe the hype? Well, it depends. If you are a sucker for nostalgic, rustic roots rock, you might very well love this album.

As for me, I’m not so inclined to think that the latest flavor of raspy, blues-based garage rock is necessarily extraordinary.

Instead, Boys & Girls feels an above-average debut plagued by inconsistency and feels overly reliant on a lead singer that never consistently matches the power of her voice with equally stirring songs.