Graham Reid | | 3 min read
The first song I heard by this funky Southern-roots rock'n'roll band from Athens in Alabama was the stunning Don't Wanna Fight from their second album Sound & Color.
It was such an extraordinary piece that for many years I would play it to my university music students to illustrate the power of a single phrase and also how singer Brittany Howard wrung it for meaning from anger through various emotions to defeat.
It was funk and soul but was nominated for two Grammys in the rock category: best rock song and best rock performance. It won both although I'd be lying if I said it won over all my students.
Some just didn't “get it” because they were more used to hip-hop r'n'b songs, beats and structures.
Something as emotionally direct as this – which came from within Howard – and which didn't telegraph its emotions like many more obvious songs in their world meant it just didn't work for them. It sounded simple but was actually quite hard.
It worked for me though so I sought out Sound & Color.
But I'd come late to Alabama Shakes – who I knew as a name more than a sound – and next thing I knew they'd broken up and singer/guitarist Brittany Howard had released a solo album Jaime in 2019 (with Robert Glasper on keyboards).
When I wrote about it I said it demanded (maybe more than commanded) attention and it made our Elsewhere best of the year picks.
Oddly enough – perhaps because life seems to be in constant fast-forward these days – we never found the time to go back to Alabama Shakes' debut album Boys & Girls.
But after our flood – in which I lost hundreds of albums, won't bore you with that story again – a kindly friend who runs a great music PR company (let's thank and name The Label) send me a care package of vinyl . . . and among them was Alabama Shakes' Boys & Girls.
Now, given we have so few records available – the survivors are in a couple of lock-ups nearby – when we went to the shelves for another album to pull out at random, this one came to hand.
It's very much a debut album by a band which wears its influences from Curtis Mayfield, Stax soul, Aretha, Janis Joplin, blues-rock bands . . .
But it wears them well – the album was nominated for three Grammys – and if it comes off as familiar in places then it was also in the same zone as others in the r'n'b/soul revival: Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Leon Bridges, Lee Fields, Durand Jones and the Indications . . .
But the band behind the powerhouse vocals of Howard are as comfortable with crunching, scuffed rock (Rise to the Sun, I Ain't the Same) as they are on the soul manoeuvres (the yearning You Ain't Alone and belting Be Mine, both with a Joplin-at-Muscle Shoals influence).
It's easy to default to Howard's vocals as being the heart of this album – which they are – but there's also some clever and angular songwriting here (Goin' to the Party) alongside the immediate grabbers (the terrific Heartbreaker).
The final song On Your Way is part blues shout, part gospel and driven home by twanging Southern rock.
The 10th anniversary vinyl edition which I have is a double album version with an extra record of the band playing the songs (and three others not on the album) live in 2012 at KCRW in Los Angeles for a radio broadcast on their Morning Becomes Eclectic show.
Here is where you hear their live power and get an aural impression of what they must have been like in concert: impassioned, aggressive when required, tight in that loose Southern way (I Ain't the Same), the vehicle for Howard's throat-tearing on Be Mine . . .
Pulling Boys & Girls from the shelf at random for this on-going column has been a real pleasure.
Yes, it is the sound of a debut by a band with influences. But it's a fully-fledged, confident and impressive debut for all that, and on repeat-play in the late afternoon it has been a smile-inducing, sometimes fist-pumping pleasure.
You deserve the double album version in a gatefold sleeve where the live record comes on clear vinyl.
You can also hear and buy this album at bandcamp here
Elsewhere occasionally revisits albums -- classics sometimes, but more often oddities or overlooked albums by major or obscure artists -- and you can find a number of them starting here