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