Can they build something on their own image?
Never underestimate the thirst of the British public for bluesy Americana. We made the Kings Of Leon what they are. We told the White Stripes we liked ‘De Stijl’ long before their own countrymen did. By the time you finish this sentence, Tottenham’s world-beating-mega-diva Adele will have sold another 500 million records by renovating throaty, vintage delta caws for a mum-based audience. Truly, an embrace of rusty American blues is one of those things that makes us proud to be British.
Given how everyone’s banging on about them, it’s very likely Alabama Shakes are going to be pretty popular. Chances are they’re a Jools, a Jonathan and a Jay away from being the next 500 million-seller. What’s still in the balance is whether they’re more Detroit Cobras or Duffy. Is there heart to their art, or is it all canny pastiche? And come to think of it, what exactly are The BellRays up to these days anyway?
It’s right to scrutinise anything new that comes along with a pre-applied patina of dust. Nothing on ‘Boys & Girls’ contains an instrument, device or studio technique invented since Buddy Guy hit his sexual peak. The production sounds deliberately flat, verging on mono. Tube amps shimmer. Upright pianos ring out blocky major chords stacked with reverb. They tread an easy, non-alienating path between Otis, Sam, Marvin and co that seems to blend the history of pre-1965 black music into one smooth, easily digestible, often delicious paste. Occasionally, ‘Boys & Girls’ does that trick of sounding more authentic than the records it imitates: play the likes of ‘You Ain’t Alone’ next to any Joe Cocker track and see which offers more wallop in its breakdown, more soar in its vocals.
Twenty-three-year-old ex-postal worker Brittany Howard’s shapeshifting voice is so much the star, it probably has its own dressing room. On ‘Hold On’, she does the sort of Caleb Followill impression that’d make Caleb drop his packed lunch if you snuck up behind him and did it in his ear. On ‘Rise To The Sun’ she gets within a breath of early-to-mid Tina Turner. There are notes of Janis, a hint of Etta, a few peppery tones of Aretha.
What it lacks is quite enough Brittany to balance out those super-strong flavours. She isn’t missing character or back story: an ex-punk, local freak, who took up her sister’s guitar after she died of cancer and “just never stopped playing it”. Overall, the genre defines her rather than she it, her words dealing in well-worn warm sentiments: “Mama couldn’t tell me about the feeling”, “I got to believe what I’m saying can come true”, “On your way to the promised land”. A jumble of the biblical and the lovelorn sit squarely on the shoulders of the giants that preceded them.
Occasionally, a more focused character appears behind The Voice. ‘Hold On’ offers a world-weary shrug at having “made it to 22”. The wickedly off-kilter ‘Goin’ To The Party’ pares back a lot of the heavy-duty keyboard-bashing, carving a spry path between the local wastrels as its author affects primness: “You ain’t drinking water… Better get me home cos I’m still someone’s daughter”. ‘Boys & Girls’ talks about how Howard was mocked as a teen for having a boy as a best friend.
It could do with more of that. In many ways ‘Boys & Girls’ it is as note-perfect an album as you’ll hear all year, yet it’s also often perfectly inert. Their new bessie Jack White flagrantly copied vast chunks of the past, but in so doing he also stripped it down and rebuilt it in his own image. Despite their obviously vast talent, still less than a year after they first read about themselves on the internet, the stellar rise and rise of Alabama Shakes possibly hasn’t afforded them quite enough time to find out who they really are.