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Friday, 23 March 2012

Record Review - Alabama Shakes

Boys & Girls
Rough Trade CD/ LP with bonus 7”

Hype alert! Following an EP last year and recent live 7" on Third Man Records has come sold out debut gigs in the UK. This time hype comes in the shape of a gospel-soul rock quartet from Athens, Alabama, who are hot on the lips of all the cool media outlets (us included!). Fronted by Brittany Howard, her voice sits somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse and there’s no denying it dominates proceedings. The music isn't shy on the quality front neither, as the guys play as steadfast as any classic Muscle Shoals line-up you care to mention. Ringing guitars and precise metronomic rhythms never put an earthy foot wrong.

On dramatic opener 'Hold On' Howard tries to out-Followhill king Caleb himself in the sandpaper vocals department, and the signs are good. 'Heartbreaker' is straight from the church - dominated by a down-on-the-knees gospel vocal delivery, ably supported by some glorious Hammond layers. It could have been on 'Back In Black'. And 'Hang Loose' is cracking, a dirty little piano-pounding rock'n'roller with life-affirming punchy chorus. It’s these heights that only elevate the disappoint for much of what’s left. 'Rise To The Sun' whirrs along in a cacophony of drums and scratchy guitar, but left me unmoved. ‘Boy and Girls' is an indistinct ballad, the sort Etta James used to fill her albums with once the hits had been written. 'I Found You' and 'You Ain't Alone' demonstrate what is fundamentally wrong. Nothing much happens at first, then a crescendo is built up...but the emotional pay-off is sadly lacking. 'Goin To A Party' feels no more than a demo, an outline sketch of something that you'd expect to developed. Closer 'On Your Way' returns to the Kings Of Leon arena, with gutsy defiance at an unjust lover. We see a peak into their qualities again here, even if it is borrowed wholesale from another band!

They seem like a record company's wet dream, for they should appeal to both fans of 'gritty' rock'n'roll like KOL and the tortured retro-soul of Winehouse and Duffy. Do they get the best of both worlds with their investment? Perhaps. I can't help feeling though that this is neither rocky enough for the former, nor heart-wrenching enough for the latter. Falling short on both fronts, I'm left wanting a lot more from this album.. All the ingredients are there for this band to really produce some killer material. For now though Boys & Girls doesn't rise above. But if they just refine their songcraft a little we perhaps could expect some consistently good rock’n’roll soul in future. If this was homework and I was teacher I’d mark it ‘promising’.

Phil Istine

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