When I first heard the country-tinged quartet Alabama Shakes, I was studying on my apartment balcony, reluctant to relinquish the last warm breath of sunlight after returning from a weekend camping in the desert. The perfect soundtrack to that evening was the loose and jangling “Boys & Girls,” a solid, summery album of classic guitar hooks and jukebox throwbacks.
Brittany Howard, the lead singer and songwriter of Alabama Shakes, is a young chanteuse who started singing in a punk rock garage band when she was 13. Howard teamed up with Steve Johnson, Zac Cockrell and Heath Fogg — a trio of names that already sound like a Southern rock group — in high school. The band debuted in 2009 as The Shakes, then added “Alabama” to their name as a homage to their native state. Their first album explores home and growth.
“Boys & Girls” opens with “Hold On,” a song with full-bodied instruments that feel the closest you can get to live music in a studio recording. This song is like eavesdropping on the singer’s conversation with herself, capturing Howard’s old soul when she sings, weary of the world, about how she didn’t think she’d make it to 22. According to the Heath Fogg, the guitarist, this entire song was improvised during a show in Alabama.
The next few songs are the jukebox jams of the album. In “Hang Loose,” the guitar riffs with an early ‘60s vibe while a bluesy piano keeps time. “I Found You” is a twangy track with a call and response chorus and vocals reminiscent of Aretha Franklin. “Rise to the Sun” then voices the driving question of the album: “Where’s my home — where I belong, or where I was born?”
The album falters slightly as it heads deeper into a series of ballads. The title track is a waltz, led by a simple guitar and piano duet. “You Ain’t Alone” echoes this structure but features more robust vocals as Howard showcases her ability to slip from a smoky croon to a fierce shriek. In the middle of this melancholy interlude is “Going to the Party,” an abrupt, almost playful song that doesn’t transition well among the ballads.
“On Your Way” concludes the album. The guitars and drums churn behind Howard as she belts out her valediction.
Lyrically and instrumentally, “Boys & Girls” is a simple album that rolls from genre to genre. The muffled, jangly guitar and fuzzy microphone create a garage rock feel that helps unify the album, creating some consistency from song to song. Without Howard’s soulful vocals, the band would be another retro pastiche of blues and rock, but when Howard’s voice pulls the sound together with a gospel twist, “Boys & Girls” finds its groove.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5