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Alabama Shakes - 'Boys & Girls' Review

On Their Debut, Alabama Shakes Take a Walk Though Rock 'N' Soul's Past

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alabama shakes boys and girls

Alabama Shakes - 'Boys & Girls'

Photo courtesy the Fun Star.
Alabama Shakes are one of the most hyped new American rock bands of the last few years, pledging allegiance to old-school blues, rock and soul with a fidelity that makes them comparable to other retro-rock units like Kings of Leon, the White Stripes and the Black Keys. Their full-length debut, Boys & Girls, will be embraced by audiences who like their music with a little grit to it, and indeed it’s a confident collection of tunes that recall a pre-‘80s era when rock ‘n’ roll stuck close to its roots. But despite its engaging backwards-looking sound, Boys & Girls isn’t a particularly momentous or exciting record. There’s a lot of promise here, but it hasn’t been fully realized yet.

A Terrific Frontwoman

The Alabama-based quartet are led by Brittany Howard, a 23-year-old vocalist who ably merges the velvety delivery of a soul chanteuse with the fire of a funk singer. Her sexy but not overwrought performance is indeed the highlight of Boys & Girls, and she gives these 11 tracks a passionate urgency. That’s incredibly important because, as taut as the tunes are, the album carries a whiff of familiarity. Much like another Southern band, the Black Crowes, did two decades ago, Alabama Shakes can sometimes pay such faithful homage to their predecessors that there isn’t enough ingenuity or inspiration in the material. Boys & Girls will make you think of Otis Redding or Lynyrd Skynyrd or Aretha Franklin, but Alabama Shakes are a little too awed by their heroes at this early stage in their career. But those echoes matter a lot less when Howard is biting into the bluesy melancholy of a “Be Mine” and you’re focused on her steely delivery.

Love Gone Wrong

As with many of the recent retro-rock groups, Alabama Shakes delve into the agony of heartbreak with an immediacy that suggests the wounds are still fresh. Augmented by sobbing keyboards and bristling guitars, Boys & Girls draws from Southern soul traditions, blending gospel and R&B on anguished numbers like “Heartbreaker” where Howard talks directly to a lover who pulled the rug out from under her. But there’s no happy ending for Howard; the album concludes with “You Ain’t Alone” as she gives her final plea for her infatuation to take a chance on her. But although love proves elusive on Boys & Girls, the romantic misery is offset by the faithful re-creations of the tone and feel of classic rock and soul records. Even if your special someone has dumped you, the warm nostalgia of Boys & Girls is like a warm blanket to make you feel better.

"Hold On"

It’s worth noting that Boys & Girls’ familiarity doesn’t mean that the songs directly rip-off older, better tunes. More accurately, Alabama Shakes have plugged into a record-making approach that eschews contemporary flash and, instead, exudes authenticity. And, on occasion, that purity lends itself to flat-out terrific moments. The album-opener “Hold On” practically struts around with its funk-meets-rock riff as Howard croons and belts her world-weary lyrics. It’s Boys & Girls’ highlight track, inspired by roadhouse rock but wielding a timeless hook that makes it feel thrillingly contemporary. The album doesn’t contain a bad song, but “Hold On” points the way forward for what this band could be.

Alabama Shakes' 'Boys & Girls' - Bottom Line

Ever since the emergence of punk and disco in the ‘70s, hardcore rock fans have grumbled about how new music doesn’t have the heart of the old favorites. Subsequent generations have had similar complaints, so it’s understandable why bands like Alabama Shakes are adored by a certain portion of the listening audience. For these sorts of fans, Boys & Girls is the kind of album artists don’t make anymore and should therefore be celebrated. Alabama Shakes demonstrate they have the chops, but hopefully next time out they won’t worry so much about authenticity and instead focus on consistently stunning songs.

'Boys & Girls' - Best Tracks:

“Hold On” (Purchase/Download)
“You Ain’t Alone” (Purchase/Download)
“I Ain’t the Same” (Purchase/Download)
“Be Mine” (Purchase/Download)
“Heartbreaker” (Purchase/Download)

Release date – April 10, 2012
ATO Records

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publicist. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

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