8/10 The very first gig that Alabama Shakes played together was – as the story goes – a hastily-assembled support slot for guitarist Heath Fogg’s then primary outfit. Thrown together, the new bandmates whipped up an ad-hoc set that mixed some original numbers in with a selection of covers of, among others, Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Otis Redding and AC/DC. By all accounts, it was quite a performance – sufficiently incendiary to persuade Fogg to jettison his other commitments and throw his hat into the ring with the high school friends Brittany Howard (vocals and guitars), Zac Cockrell (bass) and Steve Johnson (drums) – and that early setlist would seem to have formed a template for the thrilling blend of sounds that the band both borrow from and claim as their own on their full-length debut Boys & Girls.
As a singer, Howard is gifted with one of those blues-drenched, soul-infused voices that is both timeless and ageless. When she sings about not thinking she would “make it to twenty-two years old” on the effortlessly laconic opener ‘Hold On’ it comes as a surprise, so wise and age-worn does her vocal sound. The band seem to play with this mismatch, with the knowing reference to “in all my years” on ‘Rise To The Sun’, for example, and the admission that “I used to be a little girl” on ‘I Ain’t The Same’, filled with the nostalgia and wisdom that might usually be expected from some septuagenarian soul diva rather than a young woman fronting her band’s debut album.
Alabama Shakes succeed where other bands of their ilk often fail because they manage to create an intensity, like a small, individual psycho-drama in each of their songs, while still seeming to hold back from the full-throttle assault that their combined talents are doubtless capable of launching. This restraint is almost palpable on ‘Hold On’, with its effortless saunter and reined-in instrumentation, its false missed beats subtly adding power. ‘I Found You’ (an elegiac piano-led anthem unsettlingly reminiscent of a lost Amy Winehouse number) and ‘Boys & Girls’ (in which the only slightly delayed beat adds to the sense of suspense) both also have this sense of powder kept in the keg.
Combine these assets with the alternating positivity and been-there-done-that heartbreak of their songs, and it adds up to quite the potent collection. An even more impressive proposition live, Alabama Shakes would appear to be a band that, while undeniably rooted in the past, are also very much of the moment.
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