The last year has caught the modest Alabama Shakes by surpise. They rose from a homegrown Athens, Ala., blues rock outfit to a standout new band at both CMJ and SXSW, becoming an Internet-fueled sensation with debut Boys & Girls. Interviews and photos of shows alike display the band in rumpled jeans and wrinkled flannel shirts, casually performing with the same humility and enthusiasm as they would at a backyard barbecue amidst family and friends.
The contemporary resurgence of blues-rock with exponentially popular acts including Adele, Amy Winehouse and the Black Keys have certainly spurred a yearning for past times. Among these, Alabama Shakes are assisting the movement, crafting soul and blues rock into highly accessible pop sound. What sets Alabama Shakes apart most clearly stems from the forceful fervor that drives lead vocalist Brittany Howard’s distinctive vocals, all at once an amalgamation of Tina Turner’s prowess, Janis Joplin’s characteristic drawl and the intensity of Sharon Jones. With Howard directly addressing her “you” and with lyrics such as “I feel so homesick / Where’s my home? / Where I was born and where I belong?” it genuinely sounds as if the two of you were just immersed in an honest conversation.
Similarly to a well-crafted combination of Cajun spices, the tracks on Boys & Girls blend together nicely. The main flavors of blues rock and R&B stand out enhanced, but other hidden elements of soul unexpectedly result in a delicious bite. Opener and single “Hold On” unfolds as a jangly beginning to the album, with Howard’s powerful vocals gliding across organic blues rock licks from guitarist Heath Fogg. Deeply rooted soul influences take root in “I Found You,” a modern collection of crackling R&B vinyl in the recesses of the Shakes’ minds sonorously coming to life. Particularly the soulful keys in “Rise to the Sun” and “Boys & Girls” wash over you with an intense nostalgia. With its reminiscence of early ’60s R&B ballads with a generous dose of Jack White, you feel as though you’re back slow-dancing with a past crush at your high school prom.
Alabama Shakes display how an environment can seep into a work of music, with Boys & Girls as a Southern rock portfolio piece citing the capabilities a small-town band can have. The album encapsulates summers of falling asleep on porches, cicadas chirping periodically among the trees, shaking slightly from a passing breeze. There’s a mess of pulled pork juices, sweet tea and cornbread crumbs sticking to the table waiting to be cleaned up. Instead you’re with friends, each of you lying on your back and staring at the stars, beers in hand perspiring ice against the fire of the night.