A soulful debut, Alabama Shakes shakes things up

Meredith Shea

Alabama Shakes, a raw southern rock band, makes its much-awaited debut with “Boys & Girls,” a solid first attempt. The Shakes, comprised of Zac Cockrell (bass, backing vocals and guitar), Heath Fogg (guitar, backing vocals and percussion), Brittany Howard (vocals and guitar) and Steve Johnson (drums, percussion and backing vocals), met in high school in Athens, Ala. and have since worked their way to national popularity.

“Hold On,” the first and most well-known track, catches the listener’s attention from the initial beat Johnson lays out on the drums. When Fogg and Cockrell come in on the electric guitar and bass, the song receives its power. Then with “Bless my heart/ Bless my soul,” Howard’s riveting vocals flow through the ears with ease. She sings lyrics of struggle belting, “You’ve got to hold on.” The simple, yet meaningful words mixed with Howard’s matchless voice shape the song into a soulful blend of southern blues and rock with oomph.

In “You Ain’t Alone,” the Shakes tackle an old sound and are evidently inspired by the music of the mid to late 1960s, particularly Janis Joplin with Big Brother & The Holding Company. Howard seamlessly blends her vocals with a short guitar riff in the first three seconds of the song, much like Joplin did with her songs “Maybe” and “Ball and Chain.” With a few cigarettes and drinks, Howard may be able to match the grittiness of Joplin’s voice, but that’s not necessary for her current success. She defines herself through her individual sound.

Like many debuts, the album holds several golden treasures, like “Hold On” and “You Ain’t Alone,” two tracks which were on the EP release. Other songs barely missed the mark of greatness, but the Shakes will surely prove themselves as their sound develops. The other songs may not be as tightly knit, but they are still something of their own and deserve a listen.

The title track, “Boys and Girls,” respects the tenderness and struggle of a failing relationship. “Boys and Girls” shines a light on the sensitive side of Howard’s vocals and the Shakes’ ability to take the aggressiveness down a notch without losing their bluesy rock core.

Perhaps the only downfall of the debut is the collection of eclectic songs the Shakes give. Each song has the same blues core, but the band has failed to make an entirely cohesive album. They move from a tight-knit feel in the first track, “Hold On,” and then weave their way through a maze of 60s-inspired, soulful songs, and finally end with a song that has a Fleet Foxes feel in the first 25 seconds but turns into something much harder. However, this is nothing out of the ordinary for a band’s debut album. It just gives listeners a clue to the Shakes’ inspirations over the years.

In “On Your Way,” the last song of the album, there is a glimpse of what Alabama Shakes might sound like in the future. It is as if all of the songs before it were little victories throughout the songwriting phase of the album and they morphed into one mega sound in the end. “On Your Way” embraces all aspects of what make the Shakes who they are: blues, rock and soul. It sounds like a mix of The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, with the garage-band feel of The Black Keys.

Howard is clearly a one-of-a-kind talent, but the musicians behind her turn this good band into a great one. Boys and girls, Alabama Shakes is the band to watch. They’ll be in Kansas City Aug. 8 as a part of the Buzz Under the Stars concert series, and it should be nothing short of fantastic.

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