Every now and then an album comes along that is just that good. I don’t know how it happens, and contrary to what they might think neither do any of the music industry professionals who try so hard to force it to happen. No, it’s just one of those things — the stars align, the zeitgeist is captured, something. Whatever it is, Alabama Shakes captured a big dose of it on their debut album Boys & Girls.
I can’t say enough good things about this album. If forced to vote today, Boys & Girls would be my pick for album of the year. The production is low-fi in a very organic way as opposed to the “check out all of my hipster vintage gear” production that is de rigueur. The songs are right out of the Stax catalog, yet they aren’t. And more than anything the album features lead singer Brittany Howard.
Howard is the American corollary to Susan Boyle, the Scottish talent show phenomenon. Stay with me here, because I know that sounds absurd. The two have nothing in common aside from big pipes inside unconventional pop star bodies. In another era both singers would have been overlooked by a music industry obsessed with packaging, but the intergooglewebtubes killed the video star that killed the radio star. With the mass marketing machine more or less out of the way the music buying public can think for itself, and talent like Howard’s can shine. Hopefully you can see where I’m going. Both acts are unconventional in an industry that seems to value artifice over content.
This is what I’m talking about. Keep in mind whatever superstar you want — Rihanna, Lady Gaga — while you’re listening to “You Ain’t Alone:”
My guess is that you heard less Ke$ha in that cut and more Janis Joplin. In all respects the song captures the Joplin vibe. Howard’s vocal performance is absolutely stellar here, using her full range — every howl, growl, and soaring note. The song builds to a killer finale — full-blown goosebumps.
I never get the feeling listening to Boys & Girls that I’m listening to a “retro” record. This isn’t sixties R&B as a fashion choice so much as a band that plays solid R&B and this is what comes out. If the late Amy Winehouse recorded the Shakes’s “Rise to the Sun” she would’ve made it a monster hit. Let’s hope that they can do the same.
“I Found You” is another great example of a song that isn’t so much a tribute to sixties soul records as it is a sixties soul record. No doubt I could slip this into a sixties playlist and it would fit perfectly — the sentiment, the instrumentation, the production values.
I’m going to leave you with one more. The charming “Hang Loose” is clearly a song built around a riff and it contains my favorite couplet on the album: “We’re going to fly to Waikiki / It’ll just be you and me.” Another sixties smash that never happened, but now it can.
I beg you, if you have any love at all for people who make music buy this album. Don’t download it, don’t share it, buy it. Show this not so little anymore band from Athens, Alabama that there are still people out there who love listening to music as much as Alabama Shakes enjoys making it. Maybe we’ll get lucky and what’s left of the music industry will take note of the spike in sales and stop with the Pro Tools divas, too.