First the good news: By all accounts, Alabama Shakes is the sort of hard-working, no-nonsense band whose seemingly overnight success sits atop years playing sparsely attended bars and backyards. Their songs are physically hearty, technically deft, and refreshingly independent of hashtag genre trends. In other words, they’re the kind of band you might actually root to see raved about in the New York Times or playing a post-Fiona Apple slot on NPR’s SXSW showcase.
Now the not-so-good news: Boys & Girls is not quite there. Alabama Shakes play songs that draw heavily on Memphis soul and Southern rock, in line with the fine tradition of artists from Al Green to CCR. It’s music built to be played live, and Alabama Shakes’ performances dwarf their rookie status. (Even a recent radio session for Santa Monica’s influential KCRW sounded thunderclap-heavy enough to wake up every out-of-work actor west of La Brea.) But bottling that kind of electricity is easier said than done, and Boys & Girls reveals the band’s limitations along with its considerable potential.
The group’s proper debut after a self-released EP, Boys starts off on the right notes, with the single “Hold On” offering a Creedence-worthy guitar riff that builds to an explosive chorus. Singer Brittany Howard sings like a lion tearing into its prey, all primal power and feeling, while the band, particularly drummer Steve Johnson, growls behind her. “You Ain’t Alone” finds the band in equally capable ballad mode, easing into 3/4 time and fearless emoting; the slower-burning title track, though, keeps hinting at Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” but never rises to a similar peak.
If you listen close enough to Boys & Girls, you can hear amps buzzing in the background like contented bees. In our iPad-cluttered 2012, perhaps analog dedication and AutoTune-free vocal chops are a kind of rebellion, but probably not; they’re just more colors in the crayon box, and not necessarily bright ones. At times—“On Your Way” and “I Found You,” among others—the band sounds strangely like The Walkmen, a New York indie act that’s turned similarly vintage influences into nuclear-grade weapons of misanthropy and alienation. The Shakes have less thematic motivation, and more trouble with hooks: Though passionate, the album’s back half is much less memorable.
Removed from the raised stakes of sweaty rock clubs and music festivals, Alabama Shakes begin to fade into the ranks of like-minded traditionalists, from Tennis to M. Ward. Exciting as it can be, Boys & Girls could use just a little more shakin’ going on.