Some bands you just don’t see coming, and others have a lot of hype surrounding them before they can even release a record. When it comes to Alabama Shakes I, and many others, saw them coming from miles away. Different places I go for my music news have been talking about Alabama Shakes for well over a year now. Even though they have only been a band since 2009, they managed to get together and hone their sound fairly quickly. Completely blowing up a few festivals here and there, their very first full length album could be considered one of the most anticipated albums of the year. I think you should open up Spotify, or click on their video at the bottom of this post, and give a listen to them as you read through the rest of this little review. You’ll be a fan by the end of reading this post.
Alabama Shakes got together in Athens, Alabama back in 2009. Still in high school at the time, Britney Howard and Zac Cockrell started experimenting with their sound and musical tastes. Later they managed to add the remaining members of the band, record some material, and head out with their hopes and dreams. Now they have been signed by three different record companies, including Jack White’s Third Man Records, and they are quickly becoming one of the fastest rising stars in the music industry.
Alabama Shakes have more than a few things working in their favor. They have a sound that is both fresh and classic combined into one. They manage to bring something the music industry doesn’t get a whole lot of. It’s a sound that goes back to a more classic rock age of music. They manage to capture a very bluesy grassroots rock and roll soul sound that harkens back to Joplin. Britney Howard is the clear heart and soul of this group. Women in lead positions of bands can have it rough. They may embrace their role as the face of the band, or they may have a rough time accepting this position. Howard manages to grab the reins and lead the band into each and every song. She brings both heart and soul to each and every song on the album. It’s clear these songs weren’t written by some song writing guru a record label has on staff. Instead, Howard put all of her raw emotions and feelings into each and every song.
The best place to start with Alabama Shakes is their first single/song on the album: “Hold On”. This is the song that they are performing on late night talk shows, and they have a video for it as well. As I said earlier, Howard pours herself into many of these different songs, and it definitely comes out in full force on this song. The song starts off simple enough. The beat the drums keep, the pretty simple melody the guitars have, and the steady bass don’t deviate much until near the end of the song. It is really Howard’s voice that stands out here. She has the ability to sing, “scream”, and put emphasis on things so you can see her passion here. The lyrics of the song are pretty simple as well, but the power lies in how she sings it. She seems to be singing about struggling to make it out of some kind of difficulty. Her lyrics, “Bless my heart, Bless my soul / Didn’t think I’d make it t0 22 years old / Must be someone, up above / Saying come on Britney, you gotta come on up / You gotta hold on”, seem really personal. I especially like how she throws her own name in there as well. It’s like she wants you to know she is struggling to hold on. The emotion she contains in her voice only continues to come out even more as the song breaks into organized pandemonium near the end of the song. Watch the video below!
There are quite a few other songs on the album where the passion comes out almost just as much as the first single off the album. “Heartbreaker” is another song of the album that seems to have some deep seeded meaning to it as well. Here Britney comes across more as a crooner, but her ability to go from quiet reflective crooner to impassioned heartbroken lover really drive the song forward and give it tons of character. Her screaming/wailing as she sings, “How was I supposed to know you were a heartbreaker” almost come across as a woman in the midst of an emotional breakdown. The circus nature of the keyboards on this one also help to assist in bringing out the passion “Be Mine” comes across somewhat more cool and collected for sure, but listening to the lyrics and singing help to show the real feeling contained in the song. The lyrics here almost make it seem like she knows what man she wants, and she is ready to fight for him. No one is going to tear them apart. I like the James Brown breakdown at the end of the song on this one as well.
Alabama Shakes isn’t all serious though; they definitely manage to talk about having a good time as well. “Hang Loose” brings to mind some type of 50’s sock hop song. I always manage to get the dance scene from the first Back to the Future movie in my head when I listen to this song. It’s a much more laid back song, and it’s message is simply to take it easy and have fun. It’s real catchy and much more relaxed than some of the other material. “Goin’ To The Party” is one of the stranger songs on the album for me. It has more of a narrative to it about heading to a party. They warn or entice you to go because there is going to be dancing and a fight as well. The tempo of the song is definitely different from anything else on the album, and I do have to be in the mood for it. I can’t help but think this is a slightly comedic song. Britney warbles, “Gotta take me home now, know you ain’t drinking water / Gotta take me back, cause I’m still somebody’s daughter”. The lyrical content and delivery are just so much different from anything else on the album.
There are a few songs on the album that show their very quiet and reflective abilities as well. The title song, “Boys & Girls”, has a very slow beat, quiet vocals, and easy tempo. It helps bring a good amount of diversity to it, and it helps show the quiet side to Britney’s vocals as well. “You Ain’t Alone” follows a similar slow even tempo as well. There is definitely more emotion and passion to the singing of this one. It’s a great song that helps continue to show the passion and the emotion of this band as well.
Alabama Shakes may be the first real contender for album of the year for me. I picked this one up about a week ago, and it has pretty much been the only thing I’ve listened to since then. If you have never checked out a band I’ve suggested before, you definitely need to look this one up for sure. I’ll admit to being very opinionated about this band, but I think they have a very good chance of finding a way into your hearts and into your regular rotation of albums.
Teacher Grade: A+