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Alabama Shakes, ‘Boys and Girls’ (ATO Records)

Alabama Shakes
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 10, 2012
Label: ATO

A peculiar intensity of anticipation hounds Boys & Girls. Usually, hot new artists from the retro/roots/garage scene first blow up when the young and cool take notice; only after several increasingly successful albums do the dad-rocking Boomers come sniffing around. That’s how it worked for both the Black Keys and the White Stripes. But not for Alabama Shakes, who until this week had dropped but a single EP since coming together barely three years ago. Young and old, hip and square: All were hot on the group’s trail from the onset, desperately awaiting the release of their debut album. Surely the most telling sign that myriad demographic tribes have collapsed into a single fawning mass is the fact that both Jack White and Joe Scarborough are among the band’s celebrity admirers.

Much of this anticipation fixates on the voice of Brittany Howard. The band’s 22-year-old singer-guitarist has quickly established herself an audacious presence via a clutch of YouTube clips, a kick-ass live show, and (strangely enough) a 2011 Zales commercial that featured the moving showstopper “You Ain’t Alone.” That ballad alone has generated waves of comparisons to Janis Joplin and Otis Redding. Eddie Hinton and O.V. Wright would be more accurate, musically speaking, but their legacies don’t carry the same cultural implications. For those fans weaned on the Boomer pop ethos (of which Otis and Janis are principal icons), Howard is utopian nostalgic yearning manifested: an African-American woman whose searing cry and sweaty, passionate performances recall everything that made late-’60s soul and rock so meaningful and memorable. The fact that the band hails from a small town (Athens, Alabama) located a mere 50 miles east of Muscle Shoals (one of the three legendary breeding grounds for Southern soul) only further intensifies that yearning.

Ignoring this heaping pile of mytho-historical baggage is impossible when first listening to Boys & Girls. With virtually every track, the question naggingly begs itself: Do I like this tune for what it is or for what it reminds me of, or for what it represents? Maybe the most acute example is “You Ain’t Alone” itself. The various live renditions bopping about the Internet are overwhelming in their earthy theatrics: Over the group’s taught yet patient shuffle, Howard stutters and swells, tearing into the contradictions of feeling lonely when one is not alone, questioning why others can’t open up although she herself can’t either. Along the way she even finds time to tip her hat to the great James Carr (“There you go on the dark end of the street”). On record, however, the track’s delicious immediacy becomes subsumed by the production, which is a too-vintage Southern soul sound haunted and neutralized by its own signifiers.

Which is why the lead single “Hold On” is ultimately more compelling here, even though it’s an inferior song: Scrappy and fuzzy in a modern garage-rock kind of way, the strutting gospel testimonial is comfortable in its own era. Ditto for “Be Mine” and “I Ain’t the Same,” a pair of soul-blues bruisers punctuated by crashing cymbals and throaty declarations that lash out but also handle with care the fragile emotions they deliver. “If they want a fight, they done started fucking with the wrong heart,” gnashes Howard, as if her mouth is stuffed with marbles. “They got another thing coming, or I’d be a dead woman / Oh, and I would do all that for you.” Neither is radically original, yet that fierce physicality can knock the wind from you. On “I Found You” and “Hang Loose,” the group once again becomes a medium for the specters of soul’s past, but at least they’re different specters: Lurking in all that deep reverb is Dusty Springfield and the vaporous chic she brought to Memphis. Such a callback would’ve enjoyed more novel impact a decade ago, possibly, but the recent-ish explosion of pop chanteuses (Adele, Duffy, Lana Del Rey, et al.) have reduced poor Dusty’s influence to a “retromania” footnote.

Far more interesting are a clutch of subtly eccentric tunes that include “Goin’ to a Party,” “On Your Way,” and “Rise to the Sun”; the latter represents the most artfully balanced moment on Boys & Girls. Opening with a lush, supper-club lope, it soon bursts into aggressive heaves of guitar strum and organ. A brutish R&B syncopation powers the groove, while clever twists in the arrangement herd the group through varying sequences of sway, build, and release. As always, everything pivots on that mighty, aching voice. Though most of Howard’s words are garbled and mysterious, a few reveal themselves: “My eyes are full of stars, but I just can’t reach you”; or “But in the modern world that can be so hard to do”; and then, she’s outright howling, “I wake up, rise to the sun / I go to work, and I come back home,” declared over and over until her voice bleeds into Heath Fogg’s guitar, together creating a Jimmy Page-like wash that’s twice as loud as everything else. If the exquisite “You Ain’t Alone” argues that Southern soul is to be forever enshrined in a certain time and place — the perfectly heart-wrenching virtuosity of Otis, Percy Sledge, and Aretha — then “Rise to the Sun” is its counterpoint, a modern rock song not at all at odds with its sense of roots. Soul is a vocal art and to hear such a concept emerge in the post-indie context that praises amateurism and unpolished edges? Well, that’s just exciting.