Alabama Shakes ‘Boys & Girls' (ATO)
Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard sounds like a conduit through which the history of Southern rock and soul can pour, and a deep sense of the region's musical legacy, from Stax/Volt to the present, courses through Alabama Shakes' full-length debut, “Boys & Girls.” Howard never sounds like she's actively imitating any of the greats, but throughout this brief and bracing collection of fuzzed-out R&B, she sounds like the connective tissue between the great soul shouters.
It certainly helps that Howard is backed up by tight musicianship: guitarist Heath Fogg seems to have studied every note Steve Cropper played, and the rhythm section of Zac Cockrell and Steve Johnson prove on the Otis Redding-style raver “You Ain't Alone” that they could hold their own with the legends. Like Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings or Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Alabama Shakes sound like their music comes more from passion than study: the analog amplifier buzz that wafts through “Boys & Girls” makes it seem like they banged it out while they loved it and never worried about perfecting it.
Opening track “Hold On” sounds superficially like a pre-arenas Kings of Leon song, but Howard's elastic voice goes all over the place, starting at a Caleb Followill-like growl but ending somewhere in Robert Plant territory, then taking detours into girl group sounds (“Hang Loose”) and something akin to Al Green fronting Vampire Weekend (“Rise to the Sun”).
Like their best compatriots in soul traditionalism, Alabama Shakes are not making anything new, but on “Boys & Girls,” they are making something true.
— George Lang