words by Eric Engelbart
Every so often, a band comes along with the ability to toe the line between being indie sweethearts and achieving mass appeal. Such has been the case in years past with bands like The Arcade Fire, The Shins, The Strokes, and recently The Black Keys.
The Alabama Shakes joined that distinguished group with the release of their debut album Boys & Girls, which can attribute its success to its ability to subtly generate instant nostalgia in listeners. Behind larger than life lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard (who is being compared to Janis Joplin), the band burst onto the scene with their immediately accessible roots rock sensibilities and throwback style.
Lead single “Hold On” kicks off the album in style, with a simple and stripped down guitar riff coupled with Howard’s memorable opening lines, “Bless my heart/bless my soul/ didn’t think I’d make it/ to 22 years old.” The band is at its best when it slows down the tempo and allows Howard’s voice to effortlessly float over the music like a prizefighter confidently gliding around the ring taunting their opponent.
The album is full of standout tracks that blend into each other without careful inspection. The gentle explosion of “Heartbreaker” feels calm and composed with the capacity to erupt at any moment. That explosion comes on the track “Be Mine,” which features the most energetic stanza of the entire album, with Howard showing off bravado that evokes Joplin.
One of the lone low points on the album is the contrived guitar work. In a genre with the bar set pretty high, the paint-by-numbers guitar solos and ACDC mimicry take away from the originality of the band’s sound. Luckily, with Howard singing, most listeners won’t even notice.
To quote Uncle Ben in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The band can now either become forgettably ubiquitous like Norah Jones or Regina Spektor, or continue to expand their horizons and hone their sound to produce timelessly artful work like M. Ward or TV on the Radio. With Howard at the helm, my bet is on the latter.