When I first heard the reverb-drenched, Soul-infused rock & roll of Alabama Shakes‘ 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, I was instantly hooked.
This band just seemed to come out of nowhere, fully formed and brilliant, a gorgeous mix of Memphis and Muscle Schoals, but with a guitar-centric rock approach, and a frontwoman, Brittany Howard, who is, in my opinion, an audacious superstar in the making.
That said, describing Alabama Shakes as “The Real Deal”, as I did in the title of this post, warrants some explanation.
See, pop music is littered with superficial formulaic poseurs, always has been, but it’s become a veritable pandemic in the music video era.
If I had to choose one musician who serves as a “Real Deal” benchmark, someone whom all other “Real Deals” must approximate, it would be the late, great Joe Cocker, circa the late 1960s through the mid 1970s.
In my obituary post for Joe this past December, I described him thusly:
If I had to use one word to describe Joe Cocker’s greatness, I would use the word commitment, because, when you watch and listen to Joe perform, you see and hear a man committing himself to the music to the fullest extent possible, giving himself over to it completely, giving all of himself without reservation.
There’s no way to fake what he did…
I’d add that Joe Cocker was no pretty face, and especially during his 60s and 70s heyday he’d never be mistaken for a fashion model.
With that in mind, consider this description of Brittany Howard, from an article in The Atlantic:
During the young band’s already-legendary concerts, she taps into what she’s called the “the spirit world”—“latching on to a feeling, riding it, trying not to come out of it. You stop thinking, you’re just performing—that’s the spirit world.” The ideal of a total-abandon performance, of being in the zone like an athlete, isn’t a new one for musicians. But it’s one that seems especially powerful in relation to Howard, a singer who rasps and booms in styles that recall icons from Robert Plant to Nina Simone.
Add the fact that Howard bucks the trend of the Barbie Doll pop singer, in all her voluptuous glory, and she more than meets the Joe Cocker “Real Deal” standard.
I’ve been listening their sophomore album — Sound & Color, just released today — on repeat all morning, and as if they needed to garner any more accolades, they have absolutely earned them.
They could have easily played it safe here. Their first album sold respectably, but more importantly the tour that followed was marked by, as The Atlantic put it, “legendary concerts”, powerful TV performances, and critical acclaim.
But, rather than sticking musically close to their debut record, Sound & Color is stunningly bold in its variety, with some Southern Soul carryover accompanying elements ranging from jazz, funk, and disco to punk and psychedelia.
Quoting The Atlantic again, it’s “delightfully unglued”!
But, I’ll shut up now and let Alabama Shakes do the talking, with these recent SNL performances of Sound & Color tracks Don’t Wanna Fight and Gimme All Your Love.