3/5 Imagine the Kings of Leon playing Otis Redding after a dark night of the soul, with just Redding’s ‘Coffee and Cigarettes’ for company. What you’ll come up with ain’t far off Alabama Shakes.
It’s not so much that the Athens quartet are retro-sounding, more that it’s almost as though they’ve spent their entire lives to date locked in their parents’ basements with nothing but a scratchy stack of Atlantic Records vinyl for company. Now the Shakes have emerged like a fully-formed relic, dazed by the light of post-Black Keys hype with which they’ve been showered. Bassist Zac Cockrell grinds out Duck Dunn de-dums over drummer Steve Johnson’s flatback groove. Guitarist Heath Fogg oozes woozy Ron Wood bends and trills. Frontwoman Brittany Howard yelps like Robert Plant impersonating Etta James. Swells of Matthew Fisher-esque Hammond organ emerge, and they all chip in some sub-Beach Boys harmonies. In short, Alabama Shakes sound like a New Orleans bar band grounding out weathered soul to tourists (no surprise they started with covers gigs as The Shakes).
Boys & Girls has just two tempos – mid and slow – like lurching Southern rockers outweighed by decked Stax soul. Yet there’s a thrilling looseness to the delivery, not so much that the songs could fall apart at any moment, but that an extra four bars could slide in and none of the quartet would notice. There’s just one trick up the Shakes’ sleeve, but it’s such a good trick it doesn’t sound like they’re fooling anyone, merely playing the only way they know how. And there’s truth in that.