Confidence is incredibly important to music. Without it, a singer might get nervous or a drummer won’t dig deep enough. If an artist doesn’t believe in what they’re doing, the audience will hear it. Luckily, Alabama Shakes have a lot to be confident about. Even before their first album was released, they were already getting name-dropped by Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys, playing on late night talk shows and going on tour with Jack White’s solo act. It also helps that Boys & Girls is a fantastic debut full of cool, soul-inspired blues rock tracks.
The first song, ‘Hold On’, offers a great introduction to what Boys & Girls is about. Simple but strong drumming, Southern rock guitar riffs that could have come straight from a bar in 1970’s Jacksonville, and Brittany Howard’s intense voice. She really brings the track alive, swaggering between cocky murmurs to a buoyant yells of “I don’t wanna wait!” ‘Hold On’ feels instantly familiar, like a part of classic American tradition, until Howard lets go and howls into her antique sounding microphone. This happens again and again on Boys & Girls, and makes for some of the best moments in songs, like the swinging roar of ‘Heartbreaker’ and the falsetto heights of ‘Be Mine’. There’s a great juxtaposition between her voice and the music that gives it the youthful energy it needs to not sound like another band nostalgically copying a genre and not updating it at all.
Alabama Shakes switch up their sound with a couple of slow, soulful songs. The ballad-like ‘You Ain’t Alone’ cheerfully sways along with some very endearing lyrics; “One, two, three. Are you too scared to dance for me?” While Howard sings great on this track, the rest of the band sound a little hesitant slowing down their groove. It’s not that much slower than the regular blues rock rhythm they have going for the rest of Boys & Girls, but it’s hard not to hear them feeling slightly constrained by the pace. This changes near the end though, where it becomes a messy, end of a long night sing-along of “No, you’re not alone.” The title track also suffers from a little trepidation, the pace throwing them off again, but Howard’s brave vocals cover it well. They definitely sound much more comfortable going faster, and there’s plenty of upbeat numbers here, like ‘I Ain’t the Same’ and ‘Hang Loose’, which maybe strays a little too close to country music with the opening riff.
Listening to Boys & Girls, you can hear the reverence for Southern rock and the love for soul music. It’s played with such conviction that it ignores how they are thirty years too late for one genre and forty years too late for the other. It’s a great debut album for Alabama Shakes, they absolutely deserve to be as confident as they are. I’m really looking forward to see what they do next because I’m not sure what I would prefer they do, stick with the sound they have now or try to push the boundaries a bit more. It’s going to be interesting to watch them grow.
Rejected Obvious Review Title: It made me shimmy and Alabama shake.