Scott Creney

Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (Rough Trade/ATO)

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Alabama Shakes - Boys & Girls

By Scott Creney

Listen, I’m not denying that Alabama Shakes are talented, that Brittany Howard is a better, more soulful singer than Norah Jones. Or Zola Jesus. Or Michael Bolton. I don’t doubt that she’s giving it everything she’s got.

And I think it’s cool, in a cross-cultural influence sense, that her voice sounds like a cross between Adele and Janis Joplin — there’s some Tina Turner in there as well. And I think it’s cool they named the album after their favorite Blur song. And I think it’s cool that Brittany lives in a trailer just like Lana Del Rey used to.

But let’s not get too carried away. The song above and the song below aren’t very different. At all.

And Alabama Shakes music certainly doesn’t have the swing, the sex, the swagger, or the dirt of The Detroit Cobras.

Of course that song was an Otis Redding cover. The songs on Boys & Girls just sound like covers — only, you know, not as good. If you haven’t figured it out yet, Alabama Shakes are the the Stax to Sharon Jones And The Dap King’s Motown. This is going to sell shitloads in the UK. All those W.H. Smith’s along the motorway are going to be fucking bursting with it.

A couple of positives: there are moments in the rave-ups at the end of ‘Be Mine’ and ‘I Ain’t The Same’ where the musicians bear down and start to lose themselves in the music. And there’s a part towards the end of ‘Rise To The Sun’ (yes, these are actual titles), where the guitarist plays this cool octave part that sounds like Stephen Malkmus in 1991. But that’s the one non-pastiche moment on the album. Enjoy it. Unless, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Hey, I’m a modern guy. I can dig that art in the 21st Century is all about collage and recontextualization. But as collage artists, Alabama Shakes are essentially just ripping a page out of a 1967 issue of Life magazine and showing it to us. Actually, that’s giving them too much credit. Life magazine wrote about the world, Alabama Shakes just writes about Alabama Shakes. I guess if I’m going to be accurate, it’s like they’ve ripped a page out of the magazine, erased whatever was originally on it, and drawn a picture of themselves in its place.

Which would be kind of interesting, as a statement about the decay of meaning and the death of significance, but I don’t think that’s what they’re going for. I think they just don’t have a whole lot of imagination. Which, again, is cool if you’re the kind of person who isn’t into imagination.

Funny thing about Alabama Shakes and their influences. A lot of soul music they’re influenced by had subtle messages (and in a few years would have not very subtle messages at all) concerning the war in Vietnam, the struggle for Civil Rights, the feminist movement, the world around them, etc. Alabama Shakes are either unaware, or uninterested in that part of soul music. They don’t sing about anything beyond their own romantic experiences and personal journeys, and those are covered in as vague a manner as possible. It’s more Stevie Nicks than Stevie Wonder. More Wilson Phillips than Wilson Pickett. I’m not looking for ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Hell, I’m not even looking for ‘Respect’, but there’s nothing here as haunting or mysterious as even ‘In the Midnight Hour’.

I’m not saying music has to have political subtext in order to be good. But um, it’s just interesting to notice what parts of soul music they choose to leave in and what parts of the music they choose to leave out. Or to put it another way, Alabama Shakes are very much into form; they aren’t so much into content.

I can understand why Alabama Shakes would be worth checking out live, but the actual album is as unoriginal, flat, tedious, and backwards-looking — in a musical sense — as the people who are going to flock to buy it. I can think of a few hundred songs off the top of my head that you’d probably like even better. If you haven’t heard them, you probably should. And if you’ve already heard them, what the fuck do you need this for?

10 Responses to Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (Rough Trade/ATO)

  1. Everett True April 9, 2012 at 7:45 am

    Alabama Shakes are the only band I’ve removed (temporarily) from Song of the Day. They seemed to be downright rude, and industry-orientated. Nothing wrong with either, of course, but… (This impression is an instinct, and not founded in fact – but my instinct is often good.)

    They may well be Stax to Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings’ Motown – although I reckon they’re more Janis Joplin to Sharon Jones And The Dap-Kings’ Stax – but at least the Dap-Kings are enthusiasts. And friendly.

    I later reinstated Alabama Shakes as a Song of the Day, but mainly cos I no longer always trust my own instincts.

  2. Everett True April 9, 2012 at 8:50 am

    A couple more points.

    It may well be a thin line between Alabama Shakes and The Black Crowes. It’s also a thin line between this and Lenny Kravitz (as my wife pointed out at the time). It’s on such tender, barely-discernible, differences that great music turns. Not that I’ve made my mind up about the Shakes, far from it. NPR report that they come Jack White-endorsed. If I’d known that before hearing them, I might well not have bothered.

  3. DC April 9, 2012 at 7:37 pm

    “seemed to be downright rude” — personal interaction or general observation?

    This interests me greatly. I’ve been noticing/experiencing a pattern over the last 2 years or so* where previously obscure/margin bands/artists suddenly becoming feted & ‘must listens'(a) becoming tightly ring-fenced by management/PR etc., cutting off any access & dismissing our (very early) support, & (b) not returning calls/emails etc., instead routing everything through bulldog gatekeepers at the aforementioned management/PR, creating a cynically erected dead end.

    I’m not saying we deserve or warrant access because we played their demos back in 2007 or whatever, & I understand the point of gaining a mainstream momentum for any band, but this increasingly ‘rude’ aspect, from both bands/artists & their appointed 25%ers, & the focus shift to broadsheet/mainstream radio etc. exposure only, is certainly starting to grate my tits.

    *although, it’s likely this pattern exists anyway/everywhere in the industry & I’ve either purposefully ignored it or been naïve enough to not notice previously.

  4. Everett True April 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    think it’s always happened, but it’s happening again. and yes, I think Alabama Shakes are a good example of this.

  5. Joseph Kyle April 9, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Well, don’t worry, when their 15 minutes are up and no one gives them the time of day, they’ll be more ‘accessible.’

  6. Joseph Kyle April 10, 2012 at 7:11 am

    I got to thinking about it, guys…

    And you know…it seems to me that the fans of soul/R&B even more defensive about the genre than most other music…even punk….

    why is that?

    As for Scott’s review, I don’t agree with it, but it’s at least a fair assessment. I do agree that the album doesn’t quite have that spark that their live show does–but then again, isn’t that true of a lot of soul records? Maybe, maybe not. I’m willing to give ’em a pass on it because it’s their debut album.

    I can’t really speak of the other things brought up, though. i mean, one could dig about any band with any kind of acclaim or press recognition and find moments where an act may not have been their best/friendliest. it happens.

  7. Joseph Kyle April 10, 2012 at 7:15 am

    My take on them, though, is that they’re a young band with a very talented front woman…and they got caught up in a signing frenzy of “blues” artists based in part on the success of Adele (and, perversely, Amy Winehouse). A question of a band being rushed out into the spotlight without the chance to develop and mature. It happens. So quick to cash in, that the lifeblood is drained out.

    I will give them credit for one thing: they’ve been on the road incessantly, and I bet they hadn’t been that road-tested when they recorded this album. I would like to hear what they do in a year or two, when their realization of who they are as a live band will have more of an interplay in the development of their music.

  8. Everett True April 10, 2012 at 7:22 am

    I agree that no way this album matches the promise of those earlier live performances on YouTube.

  9. mike April 13, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    What Joseph said about re: their current “rudeness.” They’re going to be pretty fuckin’ friendly to fans again once album #3 comes out and fails to sell.

  10. PF April 24, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    You’re right… Alabama Shakes and Black Crowes are very close on the continuum of sound. And that’s why I love them both.

    The Crowes don’t have any indie cred, but they’re a great band, and their first four records (particularly Southern Harmony and Amorica) stack up against any in my collection. So if you like the Shakes because they’re the cool new sound, then you are most certainly on the wrong bus. But if you’re a southern rock/soul/blues fan, then how can you not LOVE them? Let the backlash commence, they’re not for everyone. But they are really damn good.

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