Album of the week : Boys and Girls - The Alabama Shakes

The sudden rise of the Alabama Shakes is quite a story. A year ago the band was working day jobs in Athens, Alabama, playing to crowds of 20-30 people, and self-financing their first recording with no record label or other support

Fast forward to this week - Boys and Girls  was released on Monday by Rough Trade following a good old fashioned  major label bidding war, the band have generally got excellent reviews, have  two sold out shows in New York City, made an appearance on David  Letterman in the US, and have embarked on an almost completely sold out tour that will take them to Canada, Europe, the UK and various US cities

So why all the buzz? It’s not complicated. Consisting of three men and one young explosion named Brittany Howard on vocals and guitar, the group, which formed in northern Alabama in 2009, offers stripped down truth, minus any affectation, histrionics or irony. Brittany Howard has got it. This 23 year old is blessed with a killer voice that naturally combines soul, blues and rock’n'roll. She plays guitar like her life’s on the line. Somehow a young woman who was delivering mail a few months ago is now earning comparisons to Janis Joplin and Bettye LaVette. Yes, that may seem ridiculous, but she’s that good!

Heath Fogg also plays guitar with real feeling without ever overdoing it, while the rhythm section of bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Jackson play like old pros with a groove that would make them proud just west of Athens Alabama down Highway 72 in Muscle Shoals. Add the tasty piano and keyboards and all it’s all there - the rock and the roll

The album starts on a strong note with Hold On‘.Howard has a truly unique style and the track builds up to an impassioned climax, then simmers down nicely. Fogg provides a tasty country/soul inspired guitar solo. It literally leaps out of your iPod or car radio, a young band busting out and just grabbing it. Howard sounds like such an old soul, right at the onset of the track “Bless my heart, bless my soul, didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old

There’s something timeless about Howard’s voice, her writing, and the band’s playing. It has no self-conscious retro feel, instead coming across completely instinctual and deeply passionate. Their greasy sound and rough edges, their ‘let’s just play and not over think this’ comes through especially well on the album’s 3rd song, ‘Hang Loose’, a terrific rock’n'roll song that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Springsteen live set and you can hear a hint of Bob Marley-esque roots reggae guitar on ‘Rise to the Sun’

Athens is an hour from the storied Muscle Shoals recording studio, where Aretha Franklin cut ‘I Never Loved a Man’ and Wilson Pickett recorded ‘Mustang Sally’.  That Muscle Shoals sound can be heard in the melodies of  ‘I Found You’ and ‘You Ain’t Alone’

They can slow it down too. One of the highlights is the title track ‘Boys & Girls’ a ballad that recalls the Memphis soul sound. The band has the confidence and the right instinct to keep things economical, the 11 songs here clocking in at a brisk 39 minutes, though still finding room to kick things into a higher gear at the end of cuts like ‘Be Mine’ that have a Southern rock jam band spirit without the guitar cliches

The band has far more in common with say the Drive-By Truckers and old Rolling Stones records than any slick neo-soul of today. Boys and Girls hisses, crackles and rocks, while wearing its Southern working class hero heart on its sleeve. The Shakes make rock & soul music as if the last 40 years of popular sounds had never happened; you won’t hear a single hip-hop rhythm, disco beat, tripped out guitar effect or dubstep bass drop on Boys & Girls. Instead, their songs suggest that golden period from 1964 to 1974 when electric blues and rock music were intermingling: think the Rolling Stones on ‘Let It Bleed’, ” Janis Joplin at her 1968 peak and Otis Redding and the classic Stax Records house band on ‘Heartbreaker’

The results are irresistible. In an age of Auto-Tune, ProTools, X Factor, and a maximum of 140 characters, the Alabama Shakes are a throwback and as real as a heart attack brought about by a lifetime of chicken fried steak

NMTBP’s advice? Get on this bandwagon now while there’s still a little room

Buy it here

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April 13, 2012

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