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Shakin' All Over

Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls
(ATO Records)
3 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: April 4, 2012
Alabama Shakes

Review by Holiday Girod

Their debut album doesn't even drop until next week and it seems that everyone and their pet hamster already knows about Alabama Shakes - one of the most highly publicized new bands to emerge since The White Stripes ripped a new hole in the face of rock a decade ago. They've already performed on Conan (with a Letterman appearance slated for April 12th), been lauded by NPR along with every virtual corner of the blogosphere, and were the media darlings at both last fall's CMJ Music Marathon in NYC and SXSW music fest in Austin just a few weeks ago. So, as the band begins to accept choice slots for major music festivals this year, along with being courted by the "beautiful people" in the music biz, the question that looms large is, does this young Athens, Alabama foursome live up to all the hype?

Well, yes... and no. Yes, because on their debut album, Boys & Girls, they offer up a tasty platter of Southern soul that's been dry-rubbed with a mixture of R&B, rock, blues and gospel. Not a lot of sides dishes, mind you, but real heavy on the meat & potatoes. Substantial. There are a couple of ridiculously catchy numbers (close your eyes during the infectious hit "Hold On" and I swear you can feel the sway of a front-porch rocking chair on a lazy summer's day), heart-drenched soul ("I Found You," "Rise To The Sun" "On Your Way" and "Be Mine"), not to mention a couple more spirited tracks that exude an underlying funk that could only be conjured from deep below the Mason-Dixon line. And while the band offers up earthy arrangements that swing, rock and, at times, even sweetly coo, they never threaten to upstage their own secret weapon - singer Brittany Howard's dynamic pipes. Throughout the record Howard's howling, powerhouse voice beams bright, reminding us of some of music's greatest female vocalists, such as Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner in her prime. Yet while this young Alabama singer wears many a-great influence on her sleeve, there's an undeniable uniqueness, passion and natural beauty in her delivery. To paraphrase the title of James Brown's 1991 career-spanning retrospective box set (while also jumping aboard the adoring media-train), ladies and gentleman, it's "star time."

So what's not to like? Nothing really, other than with all the media frenzy surrounding Alabama Shakes as they begin to take their first steps into the quote-unquote big time, it just has a feeling of "too much, too soon." I caught one of their recent Midwest shows and while it was pleasing enough - with Howard turning in a remarkable vocal delivery throughout - the band never seemed to be able to take the songs over the edge, instead offering up a solid, yet decidedly safe, springboard for their star to shine. It's not an insult - they were good, but just lacked the dynamics to take the performance to that transcendental state of euphoria that only a great live performance can summon. Hopefully, with all of the live shows they have in the pipeline, they'll soon be firing on all cylinders and taking us all to "that place." As far as the album is concerned, it really is a strong first outing, and will no doubt do very well (which I'm happy to say). But if we're to believe all of the hyperbole (with one national music magazine recently comparing the Shakes' early shows to that of The Beatles' early live shows at the Cavern Club. Ummm?... okay), then this record would sit beside some of music's greatest debuts, such as The Doors, The Band's Music From The Big Pink, Hendrix's Are You Experienced?, The Ramones or Led Zeppelin's self-titled LPs, or even, in my humble opinion, The White Stripes' debut. It doesn't. But, with that said, it still holds up well and shows an immense amount of promise for this up-and-coming new band. Here's hoping they can ride this storm of sudden success to even greater things in the future.

Related articles:

Alabama Shakes - Concert review - Milwaukee, WI March 2012

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