The Alabama Shakes Are Worth The Hype
You’re thirteen years old. You run into your bedroom clutching a new CD – or cassette tape, or vinyl, or 8-track, or whatever medium defined your era – and close the door. You start the music and lay down on your bed, closing your eyes. You listen. The drums start first, a slow rock beat, then a guitar slips in with a bass line. The singer croons the opening verse and you clutch the bedspread. By the third track, you’re intoxicated. And even though you’ve never heard the songs before, it feels like they’ve always been there, a part of your musical soul. You must have forgotten it, but here it is. The album ends, and you immediately rewind and start it over. You need to soak this in.
Such music experiences are few and far between, but they exist to be treasured. I felt the butterflies – or maybe it was more of a slurred, drunken lust – when I first heard the Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls. Brittany Howard’s raw voice filled my brain, full of bravado and emotion and gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, blues-tastic honesty. There is not a synthesizer or a polished production value in sight, and the lo-fi recording mashes pleasingly against the tight sounds of Howard and Heath Fogg on guitar, Zac Cockrell on bass, and Steve Johnson on drums. But it’s Howard’s unrestrained voice that brings this modern blues rock band to a new level.
Of course, I’ve listened to amazing bands for years that finally land a music video on MTV and suddenly I’m sharing the mosh pit with latecomers, teeny boppers and fairweather fans. It’s hard not to feel bitter, but the appropriate response is to be glad the artists you appreciate are gaining the exposure that will lead to their producing more music. More often, wonderful bands never get a handle on the spotlight and never escape the dive bar stage.
That didn’t happen here, though the Alabama Shakes did not toil long before finding praise and success. Howard and bassist Cockrell started playing together in high school, fiddling with covers and their own compositions and just having fun. In 2009 they assembled the remaining band members for a specific bar gig and then continued practicing together, playing dive bars in their hometown of Athens, Alabama. Originally called The Shakes, the band’s catalog grew and developed according to what kept people dancing and the more they played together, the more they seemed to understand the hazy intersection of Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, and Led Zeppelin. It’s a modern blues rock that makes so much sense, we simply scratch our heads. How did the world survive without this until now?
I’m not the only one who felt the magic from the first listen. Music critics and fans seized the album when it was released in April 2012, gushing over the raw sound and the absence of polish in the pages of Rolling Stone, Paste, Billboard and the LA Times, to name a few. The band was promptly invited to perform on Conan, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Later…with Jools Holland. They were splashing in the mainstream straight out of their first trip to a studio and this with a purposefully lo-fi and grimy album recorded at a Nashville studio called The Bomb Shelter for Dave Matthews’ label, ATO Records. Then it wasn’t long before Jack White and Third Man Records came calling for the Shakes to record for a series of singles he’s working on. Everyone seems to agree: This is blues soul rock done right.
Of course, with inexperience comes a rough edge. The band’s back-up vocals lack luster. Not every song on Boys & Girls is memorable and 10 out of 12 songs clock in at fewer than four minutes long, leaving the listener wondering where a blues jam might take both the instrumentalists and Howard’s vocal chords. This is bite-sized blues, an admirable and valiant first effort and I can’t wait to see what they do with access to more resources. More so, I can’t wait to see what they do live, because YouTube can only do so much justice.
The Alabama Shakes will make their first trip to Chicago this summer, where they’ll play a cushy and anticipated late afternoon slot on Saturday, August 4 of Lollapalooza. (Maybe they’ll schmooze a bit with Lolla headliner Mr. White and hammer out the deal with those singles) Three days before that, they’re playing a sold-out show at the Metro with fellow Lolla performers First Aid Kit, Dry The River and Filligar. (Tickets, which were originally $26, are currently priced at more than $100 from various Internet resellers) Between now and then, they’ll span the world touring from New York (where they’re playing in Central Park this weekend) to Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany and back again. Let’s hope they spread their seed of genuine drive and talent to a whole new generation of teenagers… And then let’s hope those teenagers pick up instruments.