The Alabama Shakes, led by singer-songwriter and guitarist
Brittany Howard, impersonated a melodic version of 1970s blues-rock on
Boys & Girls (Rough Trade, 2012), a collection of songs that
recycle guitar licks and riffs that have been heard a thousand times in the
history of rock music (Steve Cropper's in particular).
Howard is a angst-ridden blues shouter but doesn't have the visceral
desperation of a Janis Joplin
(except maybe in Be Mine ).
On the other hand, she is a master at matching the blues agony with
gospel melody, starting with opener Hold On and culminating with
the stately, waltzing Heartbreaker .
Some moments are comically amateurish (like the
Caribbean soul music of Rise To The Sun )
and others that are impeccable but largely dejavu
(like the bluesy torch ballad You Aint Alone or the
Stevie Wonder-esque I Aint The Same ),
but occasionally she does something that hasn't been done before,
like when she combines
Nina Simone and Macy Gray in Goin To The Party .
Much better is the single that was included with the LP version of the album.
Their performances of Heavy Chevy and Pocket Change
are indeed spectacular.
Sound & Color (2015) opts instead for languid overtones
that totally annihilate the emotional force in the singer's voice.
Sound & Color slides into orchestral soul and
Don't Wanna Fight evokes falsetto funk-soul of the disco era.
Half of the album is
trivial and amateurish (the Brazilian fever of Guess Who, the punk-rock eruption of The Greatest, the Prince-esque lament Gemini),
if not unbearable (the funk-rock of Future People).
In other hands Over My Head would be an intriguing hybrid of post-rock
and gospel, but here it remains a slow jam for 1950s dancehalls.
The singer and the band mostly shine in the
torch ballads, namely the thundering Gimme All Your Love and the agonizing Miss You.
Brittany Howard debuted solo with Jaime (2019) that confirmed the
lack of inspiration and a limited vocal talent, only partially apparent on
the first Alabama Shakes album.
Most of the album is preoccupied with second-rate soul music, which is
not rescued by the sociopolitical overtones littered here and there.
Her voice too often sounds like Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Prince,
sometimes all in the same song, singing their most commercial songs.
One can save History Repeats and especially Stay High (yet another Nina Simone impersonation),
but too much of the material is simply tedious (alas, including the spiritual
ode He Loves Me and the whispered and spartan Short & Sweet).
The music gets more interested at the very end, starting with
Tomorrow, that could be a testament of post-soul and post-rap
fusion, then peaking with
13th Century Metal, a surreal hypnotic jam with keyboardist Robert Glasper and drummer Nate Smith, and then indulging in the jazzy languor of Baby
and the digital bossanova Goat Head.
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