Alabama Shakes’ self-produced debut, recorded last year in Nashville’s Bomb Shelter studio before there was such a big buzz about them, comes freighted with expectation. People I like, like them, and have talked them up: they’ve opened for Drive-By Truckers, and are currently on tour with Jack White. Much has been made of the analogue authenticity of their Muscle Shoals rock/soul lineage, and the fact that they hail from just up the road in Athens (Alabama, not Georgia) does this association no harm. So, can they carry the weight which is being placed on their young shoulders?
The answer is that at this stage it’s still too soon to tell, and although the signs are promising, their future is difficult to call. Boys & Girls certainly displays potential, but is not yet the finished article, never mind earth-shattering. Lyrically, they can come across as callow, and for every cute-in-its-simplicity line and heartfelt delivery, there are also tedious exhortations to ‘Hold On’ and ‘Hang Loose’, advice that would embarrass even the crassest problem page response. Musically, for all their chops and tight ensemble playing, they can too often sound like a slightly above average bar band, for example on the clichéd run-through that is ‘I Found You’. ‘You Ain’t Alone’ is a competent stab at Stax soul, but flirts uncomfortably with pastiche. Indeed, weak songwriting is probably the major flaw here. Also, one of the odd things about this album is that it seems to be ‘back-loaded’. The best is saved until last with this record, and it is as late as the closing three tracks, the fabulous wig-out codas of ‘Be Mine’, ‘I Ain’t The Same’ and ‘On Your Way’, that sparks really begin to fly, and it’s possible to see what all the fuss is about.
No-one would argue with the assertation that singer Brittany Howard boasts a good set of pipes, and I suspect that the band are a decent live proposition. They also contain the prospect of considerable cross-generational appeal, the older set digging the flashes of Janis Joplin-style Dionysianism, the young ’uns welcoming something that might fill the void for the post-Amy Winehouse market. Yes, they are the kind of band your parents could like. But while they provide a pleasant reminder of a time when ‘Contemporary Female R’n’B meant Aretha Franklin rather than Rihanna, they still have quite a ways to go before they’ll be inheriting that mantle. In the meantime, I’ll be continuing on the Etta James binge I’ve been on since that great lady’s death last January.