Look, OF COURSE Alabama Shakes are overrated.
Well, at least they’re overrated if you still consider The Album as the ultimate measure of a band.
Which no one does anymore, so maybe this really is the best band in the world ever of all time right now. A catchy lead single, live shows that verge on rapture (never seen ‘em, except on TV) -- unless you’re Radiohead, what else matters, what else SELLS, in 2012 besides ticket stubs and iTunes singles?
A voice, that’s what else matters. And Brittany Howard’s is a real mother, a bluesy, grumbly, pissed-off, vulnerable, sexy beast that Howard herself advises you’d best not fuck with. I don’t think “Hold On” is really that great a “song” -- lyrically, musically, it’s actually kind of skimpy and bland -- but Howard sings the hell out of it, her troubled rumble rising to a prayerful gospel wail while the band … diddles around behind her.
And that’s where all the super buzz and stories about legendary pre-fame Led Zeppelin covers work against Alabama Shakes: on “Boys and Girls,” Howard sings in front of a backing band, not a BAND band. After the galloping “Hold On” clone “Hang Loose,” the rest of the album settles into a soul-funk groove that dozes a lot more than it pops. Howard’s voice is the show. Whatever else the song calls for -- an organ prom waltz (“Heartbreaker”), a ‘60s girl group surge towards the chorus (“I Found You”), an island sway (“Rise to the Sun”) -- the band fills in with genre-appropriate muzak.
It probably says more about my expectations than it does about Alabama Shakes that I wonder if I’d like “Boys and Girls” better had it been packaged as a Brittany Howard album, which is really what it is, and not as the arrival of some phenomenal new group, which it isn’t. But it’s easy enough to see how we got here. Howard’s non-traditional frontwoman charisma and throwback voice, the backwoods name and occasional twangs of roots rock, form a perfect bridge between the MOR crowd, who think they’ve discovered some hipper alternative to Adele, and the indie kids, who think they’re too hip to listen to Adele.
It’s all so perfect … except for the part where the middle of the album is really boring.
As long as we’re talking demographics: I bet there’s also a sizeable overlap between People Who Love Alabama Shakes and People Who Sniffed that Amy Winehouse Was An Overrated One-Hit Wonder After She OD’d. Those same hipsters would never admit that Alabama Shakes -- at least on this record -- have a lot more in common with Winehouse and Adele than, say, Fleet Foxes, or that Winehouse’s slinky trainwreck kink gave “Back to Black” the kind of drama and personality that “Boys and Girls” lacks. Like I said, Howard can sing. You know that before you even buy the album. Once you’re acclimated to this fact, you keep waiting for her to say something beyond write-by-numbers lonely girl blues. You tell me where the droning mope of “Heartbraker” and the droning mope of “Boys and Girls” ends. And why does “Goin’ to the Party” cut itself short before its playful menace develops into an actual story? I’d rather listen to the trainwreck.
It wouldn’t surprise me if, on album number two, Alabama Shakes take their own advice and make more songs like “Be Mine” and “On Your Way,” songs that hang loose and shake and keep Howard from falling back on retro cliches. Unfortunately, all I have to write about now are this whole album and a whole lot of buzz, which isn’t fair to anyone. Time was this band would hover under the radar a few years, release a couple hipster calling card EPs, an album maybe, and by the time they were big enough to play Letterman or score espresso foam frothing at Starbucks, their “real fans” would be bitching that they suck now (see: Kings of Leon in leather pants).
And surely, in Cooler-Than-Thou, Alabama (wherever that is), kids in the know are reminiscing about when Alabama Shakes were just the Shakes. I wish the NOW! NOW! NOW! new millenium music hype machine had given me a chance to join that conversation.
Joey Tayler is the lead writer on Rocksposure.com. Based out of Milwaukee, WI, he is always looking for a new show to see. If there is something you think he should be listening to, send him an email at JoeyT@Rocksposure.com