The debut album Boys & Girls from the Alabama Shakes rides in on a wave of hype. It comes less than a year after the Shakes’ self-titled, self-released EP made the band the unexpected darlings of New York’s CMJ conference in October 2011. Now signed to ATO Records, home of Drive-By Truckers, the band has received recommendations from everyone from NPR to Jack White (admittedly a pretty short gap).
The first single “Hold On” ably demonstrates why. Vocalist Brittany Howard is a dynamite singer; her voice possesses the kind of passion and power only held by pros like Corin Tucker of Sleater-Kinney. The song sways around her and finds a sweet spot at the intersection of classic soul, blues and rock and roll. Not once does it feel merely like an exercise in nostalgia; Zac Cockrell injects a beautifully fuzzed-out bass just when things threaten to get dull.
The Shakes are at their best when treading the fine line between old and new. “Be Mine” settles into a deep groove, buttressed by pounding pianos and Howard’s wails. Yet, the distorted guitars and driving coda move the song past its obvious ‘70s influences, and into something defiantly 21st century. “I Found You” stomps around in a similar fashion.
If only the rest of the album could have followed the same path. Many of these songs start retro and stay that way which, while not a crime in itself, the band simply does not pull off well. Ballads like “You Ain’t Alone” move like glaciers when they should lilt and dance. Classic touches, like the shimmering organ on “Heartbreaker,” constrict the songs instead of letting them breathe.
While the album starts and ends strongly, with the rough patch mostly confined to the middle, it’s a hell of a speed bump. Most casual listeners won’t even get to the furious “On Your Way,” the penultimate song and one that is well worth the wait.
It’s really a shame as the Alabama Shakes, formed by a group of high school students, is incredibly talented and has some real power and chops behind them. Despite the drawbacks, Boys & Girls is well worth the listen, if only because its best songs are really that incredible. Hopefully the Shakes’ members get the support to grow as songwriters, because the next album may just be the classic critics anticipated.