Blues Rockers Shake Up the Music World with Stunning Debut

Alabama Shakes -- Boys & Girls -- ATO Records -- 5 STARS

Courtesy ATO Records

Alabama Shakes faces a truly daunting challenge—to be as great as its fans believe it to be. When the blues-rock band released its self-titled EP in 2011, which included the simmering track “You Ain’t Alone,” MTV named the group one of its “11 Artists to Watch in 2012.” Hundreds of thousands complied, forming a cloud of near-frantic hype around the release of the band’s first full album, “Boys & Girls.”

Now, the storm is here. “Boys & Girls” has all the strength of a tornado—it is a gale-force attack comprised of 11 deeply emotional tracks that are at once revelatory and deeply familiar. The band’s music sparks with humor and explodes into bristling rage without ever losing the deep thrum of heart rending, bluesy warmth that marks Alabama Shakes as a powerful, daring band.

Brittany Howard, guitarist and lead singer, is the obvious powerhouse behind “Boys & Girls.” Although her dynamic voice can rival that of anyone in the music industry, Howard refuses to fall back on pure force alone. Her vocals are subtle and varied for the greater part of the album. On the album’s sweeter love songs, Howard blends speech and melody into shimmering warbles that are poignant but not saccharine.

The first tracks on the album are dynamos in their own right—“I Found You” and “Rise to the Sun,” are especially moving. Howard and her bandmates seem to restrain themselves on these early tracks with controlled hooks and melodies. However, this early constraint does not detract from the songs’ beauty; it highlights the progression toward the intensity of the rest of the album.

“Goin’ to the Party” serves as the juncture between the two halves. Situated between the tender “You Ain’t Alone” and the crashing “Heartbreaker,” “Party” is understated and bare. On the track, Howard never strays from her lilting, sugared sing-speech, and the instrumentation is stripped down to fragmented plucks of bass and guitar. Clocking in at under two minutes, “Party” seems to be the deep breath before Alabama Shakes explodes.

What follows is a series of songs in which the instrumentation drives forward and riffs on Howard’s scorching vocals in ways that slams into the listener’s ear with enough force to scramble the brain and burst out on the far side of the head. “Be Mine” begins unassumingly enough, but by the end of the song it seems anything but as Howard repeats over and over, “So be mine” in a rising build that dovetails with a lively piano riff. She then breaks into frantic screams of “Be my baby” that span her entire register. Guitarist Heath Fogg and Bassist Zac Cockrell match Howard step for step, injecting the songs with sharp, bluesy riffs and following her with twangy loyalty through the mania that is their second-act eruption.

The last white-hot track, “On Your Way,” is the crowning achievement of the album. A deep bass strum lays the foundation for Howard’s high croons. The hymnal delicacy of the song’s introduction is broken by a scratchy, rising guitar riff that launches into a sprawling blues-rock yelp. The song builds and releases several times, and at one point, it pauses completely for several seconds—just long enough to create a vacuum that Howard then gloriously fills with her raw voice as she leads to the jaw-dropping finale. In the final moment of the album, Howard offers a few simple words. “It was just me / Just little ‘ol me,” she confesses softly, an incredible understatement of Howard’s titanic vocal abilities. Immediately after, the rest of the band refutes her modesty with a magnificent, crashing wave of sound. These few seconds capture the essence of a breathtaking album that is equal parts force and longing.

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