Boys & Girls by Alabama Shakes (ATO, 2012. 38 minutes)
Alabama Shakes formed in 2009. The group includes Brittany Howard on guitar and lead vocals, Zac Cockrell on bass, Heath Fogg on guitar, and Steve Johnson on drums. The band earned 3 Grammy nominations in 2013.
An Inquiry on Vocals
What makes a voice? Is it only about hitting all the right notes? Certainly pitch matters. We’ve all heard a tone-deaf rendition of a song; it’s not pretty. But what if you’re too perfect? Many have descried the emergence of auto-tune—a synthetic correction ensuring perfect pitch to a voice. Auto tune forcefully alters the blue note, a note sung both with conviction and sung intentionally off-pitch. Sometimes, these blue notes represent the best segments of a song, the times when a voice slides into an emotion felt at a deeper level—consider Anne Hatheway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” for some good blue notes.
So maybe a good voice is about hitting your notes and not hitting your notes? Call me crazy but that positions seems untenable on the surface. What if there was a third way? One that balances these two positions? What if a good voice is one that interacts and fits well with the style of music whatever that genre might be? In other words, Mick Jagger should never sing Opera and Josh Groban shouldn’t front a metal band.
Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard provides much to consider on this concept.
Lyrics of Hope, Joy, and Relationships
The debut album, Boys & Girls, by Alabama Shakes is a sloppy, soulful, Southern brand of rock ‘n’ roll. The band blends youthful energy, loud guitars, rootsy Americana, and compelling vocals into a fascinating seminal work.
Lyrically, vocalist Brittany Howard mixes themes of hopefulness and spirituality, carefree laissez-faire attitudes, and standard boys-and-girls relationships.
The opener is the stunning track, “Hold On.” It introduces Alabama Shakes as a soulful entity. Howard croons,
“So, bless my heart / Bless my mind / I got so much to do, I ain’t got much time / So, must be someone up above / Sayin’ come on girl! / You got to get back up! / You got to hold on…”
The track holds an infectious energy and everything, despite a loud, sloppy production, feels right. Howard is at home discussing an uplifting quasi-spiritual topic.
On a more relaxed note, “Hang Loose,” a Motown-fueled jam about a free flowing philosophy on life piques the listener’s interest:
“Come with me, sweet darlin’ / I got us each a ticket for the plane / We’re gonna fly to Waikiki / it just be you and me / And we’ll let the sun melt our cares away”
With a dancing guitar lick and an upbeat tempo, Alabama Shakes shine with this high energy tune.
Lastly, Howard ponders how a relationship goes wrong in “I Ain’t The Same.” The bombastic rhythms and crunchy guitars set the foundation for this ponderous tune:
“Listen! I ain’t the same no more / You’ll find I have changed from before / You ain’t gonna find me / Cause I ain’t who I used to be / No, I ain’t who I used to be”
The Perfect Match between Voice and Instrument
Despite these interesting lyrical qualities, what makes Boys & Girls for me is the perfect blend between music and voice. Brittany Howard’s soulful, sometimes androgynous voice just fits with this sloppy blues rock. These songs don’t offer anything over-the-top interesting. The chord progressions are not unique, the American Southern rock style has been done before—in fact, there are times when the album carries propinquity with a Jack White b-side.
But it’s ok that Boys & Girls doesn’t break any boundaries. Brittany Howard is a transcendent performer and her voice mixed with this particular style is golden. Pitch matters, and Howard hits her notes. But she also possesses the ability to rock a blue note. Brittany Howard might not make it very far in American Idol, but she’s certainly a great singer, and in this context, that voice makes all the difference.
Verdict: 4 out of 5