Rock music exists for a reason. Well, it exists for a multitude of reasons. But every now and then it grabs you by the jewels at one a.m., and says “this is why man made rock n’ roll. This is joy and pain and everything in between. This is the sweet sound of cutting loose. This is you and me.”
Alabama Shakes may be a flash. They may burn out from touring. They may simply fail to live up to the massive hype that has mounted about them, and be a band we rue getting so excited about a year from now. This is popular music after all. The deck is stacked against it.
Nonetheless, the hype, the debate, the concern that Alabama Shakes will fall short of its promise, it’s all happening because this band has already stopped us in our tracks, because they threaten to do that rare thing that long ago made us turn our radios on in the first place: to touch us. That such a possibility exists alongside our knowledge of the odds, of the many ways in which we could be disappointed, is enough to paralyze all rational thought. As a close friend said before even listening to the full LP, “I have to wait for another album before I give them my heart. Bands fail me too often.”
Sorry, Shakes, we have baggage.
The positive but cautious reaction to The Shakes’ much-anticipated full album, Boys and Girls, is swimming in that fear. Do the studio versions of “Hold On,” “Rise to The Sun,” and “Be Mine” match the already heavily documented live performances? It’s easy to argue not, and such is the primary note of restraint being played by critical ears. Could a mentor like Jack White have spearheaded the grittier and more unrestrained studio performance so many craved after seeing The Shakes live? It’s possible, but isn’t a live performance that uniquely outshines its studio cousin something to look forward to? More to the point, it’s that live performance that left us craving, isn’t it?
On the positive side, the easy pitfall of criticizing the Shakes music as “derivative” has been largely left to amateur haters, but that hasn’t stopped some from questioning the true song-writing chops of Brittany Howard, and the fact that the full-length album may have a few weak songs. As easy as it would be to counter such nitpicking (the band is barely three years old, and Boys and Girls can claim at least seven legitimately moving songs—how much filler did the Stones put out in their careers?), it is simply more evidence of our terror at being disappointed by an obviously talented group with flashes of real magnetism.
It’s time for some perspective.
If Boys and Girls had dropped out of another dimension straight into our ears, we would all be forced to stop and behold a pair of simple thoughts: First, that this band is surprisingly polished at an early stage in its life. It has taken several pre-1970s reference points and made its creation of a slick, big, and thoroughly modern sound seem effortless. In a short, hype-filled run, they have shown a penchant for lighting serious fires on big stages. If they had not done something live that is unique and memorable and not found on their recorded LP, it would be greater cause for concern for a band so tied to soul and blues.
Second, Brittany Howard has the gift. If she possessed not a shred of song-writing ability—h*ll, if she sang in tongues—she’d be capable of tugging at your guts. The Joplin comparison is legit, and the fact that so many have dared utter the name is, again, proof that she has reached us in a rare place, and thus made us fret over her commercial fate. There is also, however, a very un-Janis optimistic warmth to Howard. It spills out even in her most vulnerable moments, almost as if Joe Cocker had been reborn as some maternally radiating black woman. That voice paints songs like “Heartbreaker,” “Rise To The Sun,” and “I Ain’t The Same” simultaneously aching and liberating. It’s on “You Ain’t Alone,” though, that it finds its most striking dynamic. “Alone” is a sad but unspecific song, about wounded, fearful lovers, and about reaching out to the unreachable. The way Howard pleas, you get the feeling the object of the song will never come around, or never did. The longing in the narrative is never resolved, but anchored in Howard’s voice is the knowledge that love and salvation are there, and unconditional, and it rains over the song’s final act like a baptism. “Just let me be your ticket home,” she begs. You can almost see her hand reaching out, needing simply to be taken. She might as well be singing to us.
We are the wounded lovers, scared this Alabama Shakes thing is just the latest letdown, another ill-fated run at our damaged affections. But there is another way out: What if they have already given us something worth letting in? We have dozens of hours of recorded live performances. We have six or seven memorable, moving songs, steeped in soul, full of heart and joy and longing, and we have, even if briefly, been gifted with Brittany Howard. These cannot be taken away from us. You could, right this minute, grab someone you love, or someone you want to love, and get into a nice, easy slow dance with “Alone.” You could let those timeless soul rhythms escort you through the door, and let Brittany Howard’s voice gently peel back your cool, your fears, whatever stands between you and the fickle wonder of human connection. See what’s in that cold, damaged heart of yours, and let it surprise you. If nothing else, if Alabama Shakes disintegrates into the pop culture void starting tomorrow, you’ll still always have that. What more could you want?