Time hasn't been kind to soul's raison d'être. The purpose of America's tender music has slowly morphed from the heartfelt expression of those like Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin to sheer lover-boy stuff, a flaccid hook in the middle of a Chris Brown tune.
But count Brittany Howard and her nominal rock band, Alabama Shakes, among a new generation of enthusiasts attempting to crash a different shore of soul. The quartet possesses a garage-roots undercurrent without overplaying its hand. Songs saunter more than race, allowing Howard plenty of room to stretch from rock 'n' roll bandleader to soul revitalizer.
Howard spent her teens in her Athens, Ala., bedroom writing songs and attempting to record them. Though her parents' tastes ran the way of Dion, the Platters and the Temptations, she soon discovered T. Rex, Zeppelin, the Stones and AC/DC. In high school, she linked with bassist Zac Cockrell, jamming in a makeshift trailer-turned-studio parked in her backyard, with power lines running out from the house—the opposite of fancy.
The ascendance of the Shakes has been swift and certain. The band formed only in 2009 and signed on to support the Drive-By Truckers on the road in 2011. Months later, they released a four-song EP and made an appearance at CMJ that caught the eye of The New York Times' Jon Pareles. By year's end, they'd signed with ATO Records to release last year's Boys & Girls. Acceptance was overwhelming. The album went gold, and they've spent the year moving from late-night television (including Saturday Night Live) to festival-and-amphitheater circuits.
Howard's boisterous vocal manner fills any stage, and the music crashes in massive waves around her. But it all feels quite homey and unpretentious. Howard understands that our most mundane problems are operas unto themselves. "Heartbreaker" even acknowledges that the banality of the outcome doesn't change the equation: "Mama couldn't tell me about the feeling," she sings. "And all them lovesick songs/well, they got true meaning."
This lack of pretense epitomizes the simplest explanation for the Alabama Shakes' appeal: They sound like a backyard summer party—informal, unbridled and unaffected. There's hollering and stomping, shouting and celebrating, dancing and gossiping. It's a mixtape where a greasy Creedence groove collides with the power of Muscle Shoals and Memphis; Howard's voice is playful and intimate, refreshing in a world of self-serious malingerers masquerading as songwriters. The Shakes don't fashion a blindingly original sound, but their palpable spirit reanimates a lovable mutt of popular music's last 50 years—balancing classic rock, blues-roots, Southern soul.
Howard's vocals are so central to the sound and so deeply informed by gospel and R&B that it'd be folly to call Boys & Girls anything other than a soul album, even though it's much more. If soul fell into ill repute for a time while its application began to resemble the roteness of a dog whistle, it's begun to rebound. After the late-'00s success of Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone, soul's certainly been on an upswing that's already caught Lee Fields, Charles Bradley and Sharon Jones in its updraft. The Black Keys' bluesy esprit has helped. Howard now joins a cast of new proselytizers such as Eli "Paperboy" Reed, Black Joe Lewis and Mayer Hawthorne, all forgoing the neo-soul sequester to dig into grittier productions. For the Shakes, for instance, the loud, distorted guitar of "On Your Way" cops that raging Jack White sound. During "Hold On," the guitar distortion slaps hard against the meters, giving the hit song a noisy crackle that defies—and in turn, partially defines—the tune's commercial success.
After the unexpected success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a new lot of songwriters conjuring Americana and old-timey music offered something forthright, authentic and earnest. Likewise, the Alabama Shakes derive power from channels previously cut into our collective cultural psyche. Those paths might exist beneath commerce's surface, but they guide traffic, nevertheless. In the deep trenches dug by heavyweights like Booker T & the MGs, Wilson Pickett and Mavis Staples, there's a new, old-fashioned way forward. Alabama Shakes already found the passage. How many will quickly tack and follow them through?