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Alabama Shakes debut is perfectly unpolished

By Julie Bartoli
On April 12, 2012

The music business works in dog years - if you want a shot, you need to take off running. Alabama Shakes did just that with their debut album, "Boys & Girls."

Made up of four high school friends (the most acclaimed being their powerhouse front woman Brittney Howard), the Shakes have enough raw talent that even their moments of naiveté translate into fortuitous perfection. Their debut is rough around the edges in the best possible way; amp buzz, static cling and drum crunch straight from the garage. Howard's occasionally tight, tense delivery keeps her vocals from becoming excessive, and by comparison her Joplin-esque wails are primal and moving.

"Boys and Girls" is a punk approach to 60s rock 'n' soul. It's got the D.I.Y. aesthetic without sounding unqualified. The first single, "Hold On," features Heath Fogg's swelling guitar riff and Howard's ardent howls. Her guttural scream on "You Ain't Alone" is reminiscent of the King of Soul himself, Otis Redding. "Heartbreaker" evokes images of Robert Plant (not because of the title), "Hang Loose" has a certain Chuck Berry swing and "I Ain't the Same's" chord progressions are so deliciously retro that by the time you get to Howard's rasping, anthemic chorus, you're entranced.

However, don't be fooled by all the name checks and stylistic parallels. The Shakes aren't nostalgic for a time they've never known, nor are they participating in any musical revival - they're reshaping the genres themselves. The way Howard digs in to these songs, the way the band alternates from passive swells to thunderclaps - it's a style that's purely theirs. It's genuine, it's charismatic and it's completely infectious. Concerns have been voiced over the album's lack of hooks, but that's what this is about. The Shakes didn't aim for radio-friendly singles; they instead created a visceral experience.

Realistically, this is the best it will get for these kids. "Boys & Girls" is propelling them toward a major label record deal. From there, Hamilton will get the type of vocal coaching that'll leave her raw edge conscious and calculated. The amp fuzz will be mixed into oblivion; the guitar solos polished and pulled to the front of the mix. Call me a pessimist, but I'm just preparing myself for an inevitable sophomore slump.

"Boys & Girls" is a rarity - an album that wasn't deliberate or conscientious or over, over-dubbed. It was an LP from a band that was garnering too much hype to hold back. They dropped it before they could develop an image, before they could refine their sound, before they'd even heard of Nielson SoundScan. This is as bona fide as it gets; savor it.


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