Even before their debut album is released, it would appear that Alabama Shakes need no introduction. They’re currently on the top of a massive wave of hype that’s swelling at a frightening rate. With the patronage of Jack White, Alex Turner and, er, Russell Crowe, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Shakes are being touted as the next big thing, despite the fact that mere months ago many were proclaiming “guitar music” dead and buried.
Though the last rites have been read, Alabama Shakes have apparently dug up the corpse and re-animated it. It seems that the particular stiff they’ve got their hands on popped its clogs around the same time that Lynyrd Skynyrd was nearly wiped out in that plane crash. There’s nothing particularly new in Alabama Shakes’ sound; in fact, there’s precisely nothing new in their sound, but then that didn’t do The White Stripes or The Strokes any harm. So as long as the world at large is susceptible to blues and soul inflected southern rock when Boys & Girls hits the shelves, there will be almost no stopping them.
The album opens with Hold On, which heads straight for the southern States. Anyone familiar with Creedence Clearwater Revival will be instantly drawn in as John Fogerty’s songwriting is paid homage to beautifully by reworking the main riff of Down On The Corner and taking it for walk. It’s an influence that makes a continuing appearance on Girls & Boys; Hang Loose and I Ain’t The Same, in particular, possess more than a dollop of Creedence.
It’s not just Creedence that can be found holding sway over Alabama Shakes, for they clearly know their (green) onions, and their familiarity with classic R’n’B and Soul colours their music. In Brittany Howard they have a singer (and guitarist) who can inject raw emotion into her vocals effortlessly. She occupies a register that possesses a quirky ambiguous nature which means that she can channel the spirit of Robert Plant, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin; quite often within the space of a single song. You Ain’t Alone showcases her talent perfectly as she sounds damaged, soulful, and uplifting as her band back her with a delicate blues ballad that touches on Otis Redding’s I’ve Been Loving You Too Long. Heartbreaker meanwhile heads into gospel territory with Howard in full impassioned mode. Her vocals are rough and raw, possessing a serrated cutting edge whilst simultaneously sounding like her heart’s not just been broken but stomped on repeatedly, and burned.
The title track follows in a similar vein, and perhaps leads to the only real problem with the album which is in the sequencing of the songs. Although The Shakes do heart rending soul with considerable class, the placing of You Ain’t Alone, Heartbreaker and Girls & Boys breaks the momentum garnered early on with the rockier numbers. Not that Alabama Shakes only really work in party mode, but perhaps some more care should have been taken about the running order of the album. After the mid album soul and gospel break it’s back to southern fried rock with Be Mine (sounds like a Black Crowes offcut), I Ain’t The Same and On Your Way. They’re all performed perfectly but lack the impact of Hold On’s silky riffing or the passion of You Ain’t Alone. As such, this is an album packed with promise but which tails off somewhat at the close. Whether the hype will be justified remains to be seen, but there’s enough here to suggest that there is some substance to the attention currently focussed on Alabama Shakes.