The Alabama Shakes have attracted tremendous buzz since an MP3 of their soul-drenched ballad “You Ain’t Alone” was posted online last summer. “Boys and Girls,” the Athens, Ala., five-piece’s full-length debut, confirms what all the fuss was about.
Equal parts blues, rock and soul, the group’s unapologetically gutbucket take on Southern musical vernacular calls to mind everyone from Big Brother & the Holding Company to Etta James, Otis Redding and the White Stripes.
The record’s freshness derives not only from the self-possession — and preternaturally soulful vocals — of 23-year-old frontwoman Brittany Howard, but also from the band’s lithe instrumental interplay and funky grooves. “Rise to the Sun” opens with stomping rhythms, only to give way to Howard’s ravaged pleading before erupting into a maelstrom of cathartic noise.
In “Hold On,” over a fat, buzzing groove she sings, “Bless my heart, bless my soul / Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old,” her petulant drawl splitting the difference between Lucinda Williams and Bettye LaVette. Janis Joplin comparisons will probably get the most mileage in reviews of this record, but “On Your Way,” the album’s sublime closing track, sounds a mystical note more in keeping with Van Morrison as Howard yearns for but can’t reach “the promised land.” “I climbed to the mountain / And I don’t know what I did wrong,” she wails over keening electric guitar and rumbling Southern rock rhythms. Whatever it was, her misstep certainly didn’t have anything to do with her contributions to this inspired debut. –Bill Friskics-Warren, Special to The Washington Post