Brittany Howard is 24 years old and the incendiary blues-belting frontwoman for Alabama Shakes. And she manages something like a magic trick on the band's critically hailed debut, Boys & Girls, evoking the feel of a world-weary soul who sounds decades older than she is and simultaneously that of an earnest, wide-eyed innocent who's just learning how to make her way in a heartbreaking world.
Her simmering, searing authenticity has earned her comparisons with Janis Joplin and Dusty Springfield. Adele and Amy Winehouse come to mind as well, though Howard's style is similar to theirs only in its powerhouse presence. Behind her, the other three members of this Athens, Ala., roots-rock band pump out a retro-sounding, lo-fi groove that sounds like something from the late 1960s … recorded in about 1958.
Just as the band's old-school, new-millennium, garage-rock peers Jack White and The Black Keys have done, so Alabama Shakes rambles unapologetically down a rambunctious, ramshackle musical road, one that's devoid of pretense and stripped down to an almost primal essence as Howard blasts out odes to love, loss, hope, faith and perseverance.
Crude or Profane Language
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Album opener (and first single) "Hold On" has a gospel-esque feel as Howard hollers, "Bless my heart/Bless my soul/Didn't think I'd make it to 22 years old/There must be someone up above/Sayin', 'Come on, Brittany/You got to come on up." And yet, in the chorus, we hear, "You got to hold on/Yeah! You got to wait/But I don't want to wait." All in all, it's a complex, layered lyric about a longing for heaven infused with a here-and-now determination to keep on keepin' on.
Album closer "On Your Way" is saturated with a similar kind of spiritual ambivalence, as a woman wonders whether her departed love still thinks of her in heaven. "On your way to God/Did you think of me?/On your way to heaven/Did you say I'll see you again?/ … On your way to the Promised Land/Did you say, 'Oh, she was such a friend'?/Then they took you higher/I don't know if I can follow."
God shows up on "I Found You," too, as Howard relates, "'Cause I remember them days/I waited so patiently/For God to bring me someone/Who's gonna be good to me." Her faithful waiting pays off: "And then He blessed my soul/Well, I traveled a long way/And it took a long time to find you/But I finally found you."
"Hang Loose" is drenched in sweet sentiments as Howard encourages her self-loathing romantic partner to lighten up. "Don't worry, sweet baby," she sings. "Don't you ever worry about a thing/Put your worries on a shelf/Learn to love yourself/Don't be your own worst enemy/Hang loose, hang loose/Let the ocean worry about being blue/ … Roll with the tide, and I'm gonna take care of you."
"Rise to the Sun" finds our hero determining to hold on to her hopes and dreams in a disorienting world that leaves her feeling homesick. "You Ain't Alone" involves a woman inviting a scared and scarred to man to give their relationship a chance. "Be Mine" praises a partner's steadfast faithfulness ("And all them ladies can't change your mind/And all them girls won't turn your head"). "Heartbreaker" poignantly laments a young woman's first experience with losing at love, while the title track laments how emerging gender complexities after adolescence separated two childhood friends from each other as they grew older. "I Ain't the Same" seems to grapple honestly with the sometimes negative changes that accompany growing up.
On "Goin' to the Party," a longsuffering woman is perhaps faithful to a fault as she promises a violence-prone boyfriend that she'll be there to pick him up after he's passed out from drinking too much. "Be Mine" finds Howard telling a group of women who would steal her man, "All them girls might wanna rip us apart/If they wanna fight, they done started f‑‑‑ing with the wrong heart." She follows that obscenity with a threat: "They got another thing comin'/Or I'll be a dead woman."
Tired of prefab pop bands that have been cunningly, calculatingly engineered and meticulously manufactured by the music-machine moguls to appeal to the broadest cross section of the musical masses? So is Alabama Shakes, apparently.
Brittany Howard and Co. are about as un-prefab as it gets. The band got its start when Howard and bassist Zac Cockrell began writing music and playing together at East Limestone High School in Athens, Ala. Covering acts as diverse as Led Zeppelin and Otis Redding, the group (which eventually added drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg) forged a sound that seemed decades removed—and unapologetically so—from the 21st century. The result is an unbridled rawness that's almost startling in its stripped-down simplicity.
Watching performances in videos, on Austin City Limits and on Saturday Night Live recently, I think it's safe to say Alabama Shakes doesn't give a rip about what a garage rock band in 2013 should look like … or sound like. Instead, Howard and her mates are just letting it rip from the heart. The result is a collection of songs that—with the exception of a disappointing f-word and a reference to indulging a drunken, violent boyfriend—delivers a fierce, sometimes faith-infused reminder to keep your chin up when life tries to knock you down.