In Brief: An intriguing and unpredictable splicing of classic/Southern rock and soul/R&B sounds. Just when you think you’ve got them figured out, they flip the script. That’s an excellent way for a band in a genre I’m otherwise unsure about to get me hooked.
Alabama Shakes is one of those bands you’d probably be surprised to catch me listening to if you knew me. Sure, my tastes are eclectic, but there are certain genres I’ve never really been gung ho about, and soul music and Southern rock are pretty high on that list. Not that I have anything against either genre – I think both take talent to make. I just tend to expect a certain mindset from both that emphasizes “feeling” the music over thinking up creative ways to do something different with it. That’s probably an unfair expectation. It certainly was in the case of Alabama Shakes, a group whose name pretty much tells you these two genres are going to be in play, because I’d say that these folks certainly take the music they make to some unexpected places despite appearing to be a bit of a traditional throwback on first glance.
Of course, if you actually take a physical glance at the band, the first thing you’re bound to notice is their formidable frontwoman, Brittany Howard. While I’m not an expert on the type of music they make, I can say that I’m not used to seeing a lot of female singers in this type of music, unless the group is all female, and in those cases you usually don’t see the lead singer sporting a guitar. Not only can she wail with the best of them, but she can also trade some pretty funky licks back and forth with her fellow guitarist Heath Fogg. (I’ll be sorely disappointed if some hipster coffee shop hasn’t named a toffee-flavored espresso drink after him.) I’m actually not sure at times who is playing lead and rhythm – they seem to bounce back and forth, and I kind of love that about them. There are some pretty raucous up-tempo numbers on this album that somehow manage to pull together the raggedness of garage rock and the emotional sophistication of an R&B slow jam – sometimes these elements are diametrically opposed between one track and the next on purpose, and sometimes they collide in weird but wonderful ways. Howard’s definitely the kind of vocalist who has to grow on you, at least if you didn’t grow up with soul singer going “WAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!” right in your ear every other track, and at times she makes some really odd vocal choices, but she’s definitely no one trick pony. There are a few more quiet and sensitive tracks on this album that help to show her range, and even on some of the heavier songs, she’ll jump into falsetto at unexpected times. There’s an improvisational quality to some of it that tells me they were probably still feeling some of these songs out as they recorded them, and while it makes their sophomore album Sound & Color a bit of a mixed bag, it also makes it a lot of fun to listen to.
Now I’ll be honest and tell you not to expect a ton from the lyrics here. For the most part, I tend to think those go into the department where they’re better “felt” than thought about. Most of the songs cover the basics in terms of lyrical meaning – unrequited love, missing a lover who is far away, being so pissed off about some fight you got into that you can’t take it any more, etc. Only a few tracks are real head-scratchers in the lyrical department, and I’d say there are both positive and negative examples of that, but for the most part I’m not drawn to the songwriting in and of itself. It’s more how they take what could be a repetitive song structure and work it into a lather, sometimes by playing with the rhythmic backbone and/or tempo of a song in progress, relying more on the rawness of the music to get you into the proper mood than the lyrics themselves. If you happened to catch the band’s most recent appearance on Saturday Night Live earlier this year before the album dropped, you’ll probably remember the sharp mood swings of their second performance, “Gimme All Your Love”, which in some ways is an unusual song for the band, and yet it tells you so much about them. I was initially quite put off by that song, and it was only upon discovering that it somehow got stuck in my head again months later, despite my not having actually heard it since then, that I decided I had to give Alabama Shakes a chance. And I’m glad I took the effort to more fully appreciate the sound that they make rather than continuing to dismiss it as “not my thing”.
1. Sound & Color
Given my above description of this record, a pensive vibraphone solo is probably about the last thing you’d expect to hear at the beginning of it. That instrument, and the trance-like drum beat, are what dominate this track, and with some light strings in the background, it certainly feels like a throwback to another era production-wise, but genre-wise I’m not sure how to classify it. Nothing else on the record is quite like it, for sure. Brittany vocals are subdued here compared to most of the band’s output, though she gets some nice bits of falsetto in here and there, so it’s an exercise in restraint, a mellow invitation to explore this world of creativity that the band has set apart for us. The lyrics are a bit non-sequitur other than the repeating mantra of the song’s title, so I can’t say they make a whole lot of sense to me when I examine them specifically, but I get the gist of the song and I enjoy it overall.
2. Don’t Wanna Fight
I like to call this song “Don’t Wanna Fight No Mo'”, because it’s just more fun to sing it that way. Brittany repeats that line approximately ten hundred times throughout the song, so you get plenty of chances to chime in with her as she works the simple ultimatum into a fervent cry for peace, love, and understanding. Or at least for getting the hell off of her case. Probably more the latter, because that odd squeal she lets out at the beginning of the song lets you know she’s about ready to explode. She’s just sick and tired of going round and round with someone she can’t see eye to eye with. It’s a feeling I know all too well, so despite my initial distaste for the sheer repetition of this song, I pretty quickly fell in love with its badass guitar riff, its chunky bass and drums, and its general notion that there’s gotta be something more productive we can do than to keep pettily attacking each other until someone’s been beat into submission by way of sheer exhaustion. I’d like to dedicate this song to everyone from both sides of the political spectrum who has posted highly-charged and poorly fact-checked political memes on Facebook within the last several months. Get a freaking GRIP, people.
This slow, shambling tune feels like a bit of a setback at first – the record just got going and now it’s calming down again? However, once the band gets deeper into it, it’s probably one of the more “garage-y” sounding tracks on the record, sort of crossing the ragged edges of that genre with bluesy minimalism. It gives the rhythm section a good workout in the chorus and bridge, and it fits the lyrics, which unfortunately don’t get a whole lot more specific after the intriguing opening that finds Brittany wandering across a desert, dying of thirst and about to lose her mind. A fleeting memory becomes some sort of a vague problem that she’s tried of worrying about, to the point where she says rather bluntly at one point, “I don’t know whose problem it is/I don’t know whose f*ck to give.” The song seems to go into a holding pattern after that, simply repeating that she’s “losing it” over and over until the end, though I do like how the sound of the guitar morphs into this weird metallic drone as it fades out.
4. Future People
I fully recognize the irony of commenting on a song called “Future People” at the end of a week that a lot of people spent geeking out about how the entirety of the Back to the Future trilogy now takes place in the past. This song isn’t really about time travel; it’s more about a young person wanting to know what her future self will be like, and imploring the young people around her to remember that they are tomorrow’s movers and shakers, and not to waste the opportunities in front of them or… something like that. Honestly, it’s not one of the better enunciated songs on the record, and Brittany sings all of the verses in falsetto while the chorus is more of an excited shout, so this is really the first time I’ve actually sat down and taken a look at the lyrics on paper. It’s been one of my absolute favorites on this album despite my not being able to make out most of the words, because the band just kills it here. The mid-tempo groove is so thick you’d need one of those diamond-cutting lasers to saw through it, and when it reaches its apex and Steve Johnson‘s drums are just thrashing around like it doesn’t matter how much of it the neighbors can hear through those thin garage walls at 3 in the morning, it’s just a blast and a half. I love how versatile Brittany is as both a vocalist and a guitarist within the space of just this one song.
5. Gimme All Your Love
Speaking of versatility, this song might be Exhibit A when it comes to Alabama Shakes’ ability to switch up the mood of a song at a moment’s notice. At its core, this is a tender love ballad, the kind that you could probably do a really slow waltz to, if not for the sudden jolts of energy that come from the guitar every so often and the way Brittany just wails that chorus. The soft-and-loud dynamic is through the roof here, and it’s a bit misleading at first, startling us with that initial blast of guitar chords and then settling down into sensitive, head-on-your-lover’s shoulder mode for just a few bars, then yanking you right back out of it again. It’s that insistence on changing up the expected “slow song” dynamic that made me strangely fascinated with this song despite how I tend to not like that sort of whiplash most of the time. The way they change up major and minor chords in the song’s otherwise simple progression has a lot to do with it. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of its weird and wonderful personality, they dismantle the entire thing and build it back up into a four-on-the-floor rock jam midway through, Heath and Brittany trading licks back and forth to lead into a blistering guitar solo, with Zac Cockerell‘s bass booming loud enough to fuel a rowdy block party. Then you think they’re about to settle into one last, quiet verse, and… “BA-BA-BA-BAM!” Abrupt ending. Pure genius.
6. This Feeling
Unfortunately the next handful of songs is where I feel like the record suffers a bit. They cover a lot of musical ground in these three songs, but each makes a frustrating misstep in an entirely different way. Here, they’re doing the low-key acoustic thing, and normally I’d love to hear a band of this caliber struts their stuff in more of a coffeehouse setting, but the delivery here is so subtle that it makes Norah Jones seem blunt and rowdy by comparison. Brittany’s soft, soothing vocals are nice enough, and so is whichever one of the guys is harmonizing with her, but the guitar strumming and percussion is so light that you’d think the instruments were made of porcelain and the band was suddenly afraid of breaking something. It just doesn’t give the melody of the song a chance to shine. Other than the vintage strings, nothing really stands out here.
7. Guess Who
I’d be perfectly fine with this song if not for the lyrics. I like the easygoing, softer-side-of-classic-rock-meets-R&B style of the guitar playing, and again the strings are pretty cool when they chime in. It’s the perfect sort of upbeat thing for skipping along through a town square in an idyllic Southern town on a warm Sunday afternoon, presumably while enjoying an ice cream cone. Brittany’s vocal delivery is appropriately “cutesy” to go with it, which doesn’t play to her usual strengths, but I can roll with it. But the first verse of the song pretty much dashes my goodwill with nonsense like “I don’t see the sky as blue, like you do”, and then rhyming the word “do” with itself several times, and no matter how she might try to pretty it up, it’s just embarrassing songwriting. The chorus tells us that “All I really want is peace of mind”, but I can’t make any real headway in terms of figuring out what’s bothering her, since she spends so much of the song playing coy. “People say I look just like my daddy, because I do” is the most likely source of her angst here, but there’s so much missed potential for social commentary there. Is it because she had a hard relationship with her father? Is it because she grew up biracial in a part of the country where that can’t have been easy? Is it because she’s a tough girl who wields a mean guitar and has a tattoo of the state of Alabama on her bicep? Everything I could read into this song is pure conjecture. It doesn’t do much to even scratch the surface, so I sort of feel like I’m wasting my time trying to sympathize.
8. The Greatest
And now it’s time for… a punk rock song? Actually, that’s kinda cool, because it’s completely unexpected and there’s something admirable about how on-the-fly and downright dirty this song feels, like they were just jamming on some basic chords one day and decided to hit record for the hell of it. The downside of this is that Brittany’s vocals are very raw, doing that whole kind off-key punk singer thing that I don’t tend to like when male singers do it, so of course I’m going to like it even less when a singer who normally has such vocal power and charisma does it. First few times through, this was pretty painful. I am amused at how it abruptly turns into something from a high school dance in the 60s in the second verse, and then goes right back to being its rowdy self again. I love how they’ve mixed it so that the drums and bass are way up front. But even with the vocals somewhat buried in the mix, I feel like Brittany is trying to fill every single last bit of space with some random vocal outburst as the song wears on towards its sudden end, and it’s annoying as all hell. Letting things go this far off the rails appeals to me more in theory than it does in practice.
Straight from the WTF School of Song Titling, we have this track, which (thankfully?) doesn’t sound anything like an attempt to emulate My Bloody Valentine. It’s more of a straight-ahead rocker, of the two-chord variety where there’s not a whole lot of exciting stuff going on with the melody, but they manage to pull off a good bit of swagger nonetheless. The title may be Brittany poking fun at her own tendency to mope around when she’s feeling lonely, since the song’s about trying to keep the party going and staving off that loneliness, but as with a lot of the tracks on this record, don’t expect any real deep insights on the topic. Just to throw in a little bit of Gospel influence, she notes that “Jesus is waiting on me, like he always does” in the second verse. I have no idea what that has to do with anything, but then I’m kind of surprised when a band is from the South and a Jesus reference doesn’t work its way in somewhere… hell, that even happened with R.E.M. from time to time.
10. Miss You
I keep wanting to describe this one as the most “traditional” soul number on the album, but I honestly don’t know if that’s accurate. The swaying 6/8 rhythm, the piano and organ, and the screaming fit of devotion Brittany goes through in the chorus as she wails “Baby, I’m yours! I’m yours” again and again would seem to fit a lot of my stereotypes. So does the way she seems to effortlessly swing back and forth between singing and just sort of rambling on about this guy who is leaving her that she’s gonna miss. I’ve nitpicked a few other songs for not giving me enough details, but this one’s odd in that it gives us the very specific details of a guy having a Mickey Mouse tattoo and driving off in his Honda Accord in the first verse, only for the song to devolve into generalities from there on. Apparently the guy’s either a total sleazebag or just rumored to be one, and he’s left her to avoid getting caught for something he did or just to escape an ugly reputation… the lyrics leave this up in the air. She wasn’t sure about him before, but absence seems to make the heart grow fonder, because now she’s dead certain and wants to scream it to the world, i guess. I can appreciate that talent that it takes to sing and play like this, but truth be told it’s not one of the songs that gets me really excited on this album.
Now this gets me excited. You might be surprised to hear that, because given my usual impatience with tracks that are long, slow, and sparse, you’d think this six-and-a-half minute monster would get on my last nerve. It’s the very definition of a “deep cut”, in the sense that it’s about the last thing from this album that would ever work as a single. But I can’t help it; there’s something incredibly alluring about its lumbering, almost drunken groove. I can practically feel the Earth shake each time the drums and bass tick off another beat, and at times they’re the only instruments being played, leaving the time signature rather ambiguous (it’s it 6/8 or just a really syncopated 4/4?) until the guitar and vocals begin to fill in the blanks. You’ll either love or hate the extreme reverb that’s been applied to the vocals – it’s a trippy effect, but it fits the space-aged feel of the song. Heath’s guitar sounds like something out of a spy movie, if that spy was working undercover as a Prince impersonator. Then Brittany kicks in with a boisterous solo, and the drone-like distortion on her guitar is so thick that I know it’s bound to be like nails on chalkboard to more sensitive ears, but I personally love the sense of urgency it adds to the song. The lyrics may or may not be a tale of star-crossed lovers born on different planets but destined to be together – since all of the sounds in this song are being slowly stretched out as they’re sucked into the musical equivalent of a black hole, I can’t say that I’ve been able to make out most of them. Just when you think it’s finally wrapped up, that barenaked, bone-rattling drum and bass groove comes rolling right back in, giving us another 30 seconds or so of extreme gravity before it fades out.
12. Over My Head
While the warm keyboards at the beginning tell us that the closing track is going to be much more light-hearted in its approach, it’s no less obsessive in its devotion. Brittany’s fallen hard for someone, and she loves the way it feels, and she’s just going to bask in the cosmic glow of her own positive feelings for a few minutes if y’all don’t mind. I love how the rhythm of this song goes from playful hand-claps, to another thick drum groove, to a sudden change up from 4/4 to 6/8 for the last few repetitions of the chorus, and yet the melody and overall pace of the song remain intact. It’s like they experimented with several different moods and rhythms for this song and just decided to go with all of the above. While sonically this one has very little in common with “Gimme All Your Love” or “Gemini”, it stands out to me for a similar reason – the band shows a ton of versatility within the space of a single song. That’s a strength that I hope they continue to cultivate on future albums.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Sound & Color $1
Don’t Wanna Fight $1.75
Future People $2
Gimme All Your Love $2
This Feeling $.50
Guess Who $.50
The Greatest $.50
Miss You $.75
Over My Head $1.25
Brittany Howard: Lead vocals, guitar
Zac Cockrell: Bass guitar
Heath Fogg: Guitar, backing vocals
Steve Johnson: Drums, percussion, backing vocals
Ben Tanner: Keyboards
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: