BY NOW, YOU’LL probably have already made your mind up about Alabama Shakes, a group whose alternately amped-up garage blues and Muscle Shoals-style country soul grooves tend to polarise opinion.
I can see the appeal, I really can. Their southern fried blues-rock has enjoyably slamming drums and a funk accent and of course, there’s Brittany Howard, the ballsy female singer who has been compared to Janis Joplin.
The song everybody knows, ‘Hold On’, has a pleasing push/pull dynamic and a teasing playfulness and an inherently nostalgic sound, which makes it an instant fit/hit for many. And because it has a groove you can dance to it, while its occasional bursts of passion and noise give it the kind of momentum that is entirely absent from so many freeze-dried modern productions.
But I don’t like it, not really. Brittany is my stumbling block. Janis Joplin? Hardly. Joplin could wail and scream and shout and on the head of a pin sound terribly vulnerable and even pretty, and while her sound was obviously indebted to blues and soul, it ended up just sounding like a Janis Joplin (or Big Brother) record. Brittany, on the other hand, sings big and brash all the time, and it becomes a little tiring. By the end, I kept thinking of Gin Wigmore, New Zealand’s own scratchy-voiced diva, just with an extra layer of the Colonel’s special chicken fat.
And the sound, which consists of the amalgam of influences discussed above, taps too much at times into the current fetishization of nostalgia. It’s all just so RETRO.
For all that, of course, Boys & Girls has its moments, and it’s certainly one of the more distinctive releases of 2012 so far.
The vinyl really brings out the almost analogue attack of the dynamics, and the difference between the soft and loud parts of the songs seem more emphasized.
The built-in distortion – what sounds like guitar-amp hum on some tracks and simple sound saturation on others – must have been a calculated attempt to dirty up the recording and make it sound somehow more authentic. It probably works great on a dirty old stereo, but mine picks out every detail like an ornery old buzzard, suturing the meaning with its clarity.
Generally, however, the engineering on this record is great: big and dynamic without losing any detail, and without any of the shrillness endemic in contemporary rock releases.
An enjoyable extra for vinyl buyers is a 7-inch disc featuring three songs, ‘Heavy Chevy’, ‘Pocket Change’ and ‘Mama’. The first is an old-fashioned piece of fingerpicked Southern rock’n’roll, while the second sounds like early, pre-Columbia Records Big Brother & the Holding Company… as do several of the songs on the album! The third is a very short snippet of Sun Studios-style rock’n’roll. GARY STEEL
Music = 3/5
Sound = 4/5
Gary Steel’s admittedly less than highly spec’d gear includes: Pro-ject Xpression II turntable, Ortofon cartridge, Pro-Ject Phono Box II, Rotel RC-1550 preamp, Yamaha CD-S2000 Super Audio CD Player, and Martin Logan Powered Hybrid Electrostatic Loudspeakers.
* The vinyl of Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls is available from Southbound Records, a fabulous vinyl-dominated store located at 69 Mt Eden Rd, Auckland.