Alabama Shakes strike out in bold new direction


It’s not often that I’m startled, much less excited, by a new artist or song I hear on the radio. It’s even more unusual for the band that catches my attention to be one I’ve already written off as both derivative and uninspired.

Such was the case, however, when I happened to catch the new song by Athens, Alabama soul rockers Alabama Shakes, a band I’d paid scant attention to in the past, having dismissed them as little more than a retread of artists that were long dead or past their prime before most of the band members were even born—Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin, etc.

To be fair, Alabama Shakes had only been playing together a few months when they recorded their debut album, “Boys and Girls”.Despite the relative thinness of the music, one of their songs, the brash, catchy “Hold On” became an online and radio hit and the band earned three Grammy nominations. The Shakes’ lead singer, Brittany Howard, was impressive, no doubt about it, and the other members of the group —Zac Cockrell (bass), Heath Fogg (guitar, backing vocals), and Steve Johnson (drums, percussion)—were obviously talented, dedicated, musicians. But the songs they recorded for that album felt incomplete, like mere ghosts of the greater, more fully realized sounds that the band revered.

But this new song, well, this was something entirely different. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is an angry, psychedelic soul music mutation that, while obviously indebted to the past, also sounds very much like a way forward.

I don’t often admit being wrong about bands, but clearly I gave up on this one too soon.

I should have known better. I can still remember a time, many moons ago now, when bands weren’t expected to be great right out of the box. It was understood by both fans and record labels that musical groups were living, breathing organisms that would change, and hopefully improve, over time.

The progression usually went something like this: the first album served as an introduction; the second built on the strengths of the first and refined the bands sound; and the critical third and fourth albums either found the band firmly locked in and hitting their stride or proved that there wasn’t really much to get excited about in the first place. The point is, bands were given a chance to prove themselves over time, and not abandoned after their first single failed to chart.

In the best possible way, Alabama Shakes seem to be a throwback to that era. And judging by what I’ve heard of their new record, “Sound and Color” they’re well ahead of the artistic growth curve. Aside from “Don’t Wanna Fight” there’s the bluesy “Shoegaze”, the garage-rock freak-out of “The Greatest”, and the spacey, psychedelic “Gemini.”

Each of these songs shows how much the Alabama Shakes have learned during their time on the road. For a band that only a few years ago was playing dive joints and assisted living facilities, their recent, no holds bared performance on “Saturday Night Live” was a revelation. Howard, especially, has developed into a performer of searing emotional depth and power. The 26-year-old lead singer and guitarist is the kind of can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her frontwoman rock music hasn’t seen in far too long, or maybe ever— tattooed, 5 feet 10 inches tall, biracial, and sporting thick-rimmed glasses and a distinct taste for ’80s-style clothing. But it’s her smoke-scarred, whiskey stain of a voice that carries the music, and her unhinged, barely controlled stage presence that makes the live performances so riveting.

“Latching on to a feeling, riding it, trying not to come out of it. You stop thinking, you’re just performing – that’s the spirit world,” is how Howard recently described the bands shows to the British newspaper The Guardian.

Howard has stated in the press that the band decided to take their time with “Sound and Color”, to fully explore the music they had neither the time nor the money to capture on their first album. I, for one, am thankful they were given that chance.

A few years ago, Alabama Shakes were playing covers in old folks’ homes. Now, on the eve of their new album, they may just be one of the world’s greatest rock and roll bands.


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