Don’t you hate it when you’re reading a review of a hot new band, like let’s say, this one by the throwback, soul-shaking rock band, Alabama Shakes, for example, and the reviewer does that classic reviewer dick move and instead of dealing with the album at hand says something along the lines of, “Why bother with Alabama Shakes when you could be listening to other better bands like Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, The Dirtbombs, The Detroit Cobras or Heartless Bastards? Have you ever heard that album the Oblivians did with Mr. Quintron. Now, that one’s got soul.” Yep, that’s a dick move and I just did it and I have my reasons, and it has nothing to do with the hype.
Look, Brittany Howard and Alabama Shakes are lucky, very lucky. They just happened to be releasing an album indebted to the sounds of Stax Records and Muscle Shoals Studios at a time Adele is the biggest pop singer around and the Black Keys are the biggest rock band around and the classic sounds of blues and soul are in vogue.
These aren’t opportunists trying to wedge themselves into the safe mid point between rock and pop. They cut their teeth playing cover songs in unfancy Southern towns and thanks to a riveting live show and word of mouth, have now found themselves with an oversized profile.
No, the reason I mentioned The Detroit Cobras, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and Heartless Bastards was to provide contemporary comparisons to Howard’s voice. For all of her huffin’ and puffin’ on her debut album, Boys and Girls, Howard’s voice is thin, rail thin, like mono in an age of stereo thin. Rachel Nagy (Detroit Cobras), Erikka Winnestrom (Heartless Bastards) and Sharon Jones all trump Howard in terms of range, robustness and even emotion. Howard’s highs should be higher. Her lows should be lower. The fluttery moments should be, well, flutterier.
And the reason I brought bands like The Dirtbombs and Oblivians into the review was to show that’s its possible to be reverential to old-time sounds while at the same time making your own mark. On The Dirtbombs breakthrough album, 2001’s Ultraglide in Black, Mick Collins and crew beef up those classic soul tracks with the muscle of the Motor City, giving them a thrashiness and trashiness they lacked in their original form.
Similarly, when the Oblivians laid down that gospel album with Mr. Quintron, it was gospel in spirit only. The execution was boozy and brash and clanging with guitars. Your god may not have been happy with the results, but mine sure was.
Conversely, on Boys and Girls, the boys in Alabama Shakes are too cautious to ever cut loose. They’ve only been a band for two years and they already seem consigned to the role of anonymous back up.
Still, despite all the bands I’d rather be listening to at this very moment, I do see a future for Alabama Shakes. This baby band, should they survive the hype cycle, has all the tools to thrive. They just need time, time for Howard to tune those powerful pipes and time for a producer to teach her band how to let it rip. I honestly look forward to the day when I can write, “My, my, look how Alabama Shakes have grown into the biggest soul band in all that land.” Until then, it’s more Dirtbombs and Oblivians, Sharon Jones, Heartless Bastards and Detroit Cobras. 5 out of 10 on The Rockometer.
UPDATE: Below you’ll notice two Spotify playlists using their new embed code. One is Alabama Shakes, the other, better than Alabama Shakes. Let me know if you have any problems with either playlist. I expect you’ll need to live in a country with Spotify service and have a Spotify account for the playlists to work. For mobile devices, you may need to have the Spotify app installed. We’re learning this together.