Music Reviews
Boys & Girls

Alabama Shakes Boys & Girls

(Rough Trade) Buy it from Insound Rating - 5/10

If you are a No Ripcord regular, I think I can say with certainty that you have heard of Alabama Shakes. With appearances on late-night talk shows, highly circulated single Hold On, and self-titled EP last September, Boys & Girls, the debut LP from the blues-rocking quartet from Athens, Alabama, has been widely anticipated throughout the blogosphere. And like that lead single and those labels “blues-rock” or “southern” suggest, the album touches on gospel and soul to suggest that sour relationships and other hardships will be turned around by force of will.

Boys & Girls opens with its lead single, Hold On, which relies on an impressive yet restrained crooning from the soulful Brittany Howard. It progresses like a standard blues rock song; a simple riff is occasionally flourished with nice guitar licks, and a bridge makes way to a climactic final chorus where Howard sings a bit more purposefully and drums and piano signal an impending end. From that first song, the blueprint for the album is set, and the Shakes rarely stray far from it. I Found You follows, as much as a replica as it is a variation, save for the fact that it ends not with a bang but with a whimper. The next few tracks on the album are more of the same, especially the group’s struggles to lead a song to a natural ending. Hang Loose delivers a nice slide guitar and has an effective but rushed bridge, but it dies out in under two-and-a-half minutes. That’s no way to treat the hookiest song your album, especially when You Ain’t Alone and Heartbreaker, among the two longest songs (not that they are terribly long, clocking in at 4:45 and 3:46, respectively), are also among the most effective.

And that is the biggest problem with Boys & Girls. For all the promise that is shown, every song is missing the element that might be able to take these songs into the stratosphere. Hang Loose is merely too short, but Rise to the Sun has a guitar solo that ends much too abruptly. On Your Way, despite the fact that Heath Fogg has, at this point discovered how to phrase and compose a deliberate solo, Be Mine is perhaps the song that needs Howard’s voice the most but utilizes it the least, and the title track showcases a band that is not sure where to take a song, creating an emotionless centerpiece in an album screaming for connection. But all the affecting dynamic contrast is found in transitions from one song to the next, never within one song itself. The resulting versatility is undermined by an oftentimes disjointed sense of cohesion. The promises of something better, however, cannot be overlooked. Heartbreaker, with its formless and creative keyboards, dynamic contrast and incredible, bursting vocals is by far the best song on the album, and everything from the song itself to its perfect transition into the title track is a clear indication of the band’s potential. But even the next best track, You Ain’t Alone, sticks to comfort and refuses to take risks, resulting in a song perhaps more affecting in its effort than its actual execution.

And that, perhaps, is the best way to describe Boys & Girls: unwilling to innovate or add anything new to its genre, preferring to remind us of the roots of rock instead of showing us what made the pioneers so great, a reminder of a past love instead of a new love for us to discover. We can hear the potential in pieces of every song, but rarely do we see the pieces together. Zac Cockrell serves up a good bass line here or there, the guitar parts dance with each other on this track or that, Howard occasionally finds the confidence to sing like she will never sing again, but never all together. The keyboards never quite fall into place, sometimes the most interesting parts of songs are buried in the mix, intriguing us more than they impress us. Ultimately, what we are left with is an indication of a band to watch rather than a band worthy of the rapid rise to fame that they have already achieved.