Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls (Rough Trade)

Due to some high praise from Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood and Jack White and a well-received E.P. last year, Alabama Shakes have been anointed as one of THE bands to watch in 2012. Now that their debut album, Boys & Girls is out, will they live up to expectations?

The quartet was formed in the small town of Athens, Alabama back in 2009. The group’s focal point both visually and musically is lead singer Brittany Howard who possesses a truly impressive voice. On the album’s first track, Hold On, she sounds like a cross between Janis Joplin and Jack White with a bit of Tine Turner thrown in for good measure. The rest of the band consists of guitarist Heath Fogg, bass player Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson. Touring member Ben Tanner plays organ and piano.

The band’s sound is set firmly in the past…late 60s/early 70s classic rock with a nod toward the blues. The Black Keys have been mentioned as a comparison as well.

The record starts on a strong note with Hold On. Howard has a truly unique style and the track builds up to an impassioned climax, then simmers down nicely. Fogg provides a tasty country/soul inspired guitar solo.

The young band produced the album themselves at Nashville’s Bomb Shelter studio. This was a mistake. The overall sound is muddy and below professional standards. Amps hum and vocals are buried in the mix, making for frustrated listening.

Likewise, the songwriting is unfocussed and undercooked. Tracks like Rise To The Sun and You Ain’t Alone begin with plenty of promise, but then quickly falter. One of the tracks that does manage to come together is I Ain’t The Same. The production sounds cleaner and the arrangement gives the song some form.

This is a band that was, until recently, playing covers in small bars in rural Alabama. I’d be willing to bet that they sound much better live. I’d especially like to see Brittany Howard perform, but they need some direction in the studio. If they continue to record in Nashville maybe they can hook up with Jack White of Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. There’s plenty of potential here and a few good moments, but so far Alabama Shakes have yet to live up to those expectations.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to I Ain’t The Same from Boys & Girls