THIS STORMING debut album from the hot-ticket Alabama soul-rock quartet fully delivers on the groundswell of anticipation built up by already legendary live performances and the acclaim of peers such as Adele and Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner.
It also bears out the principle, often derided in this age of nanosecond YouTube legend and instant talent-show celebrity, that for a band there is still no substitute for learning the ropes the hard way, plugging away and developing your sonic chemistry through night after night of gigs in tiny clubs. It’s absurd to imagine that a group like the Shakes, with their raw, grainy take on Southern soul, arrived fully formed in the world by sheer good fortune. This kind of relaxed, easy reliance on each others’ abilities and support, the knowledge that you’re all thinking with one mind musically, comes from months of getting to know each other through banging out cover versions and discovering shared tastes. There’s nothing formulaic going on on Boys & Girls, and certainly no effort unnecessarily wasted on visual styling or plotting market strategy. Just a series of great, swampy soul grooves, fronted by the most arresting new voice you’ll hear this year, and the kind of natural songwriting that seems to contain the entire history of Southern music within its staves.
Brittany Howard is the obvious focus, her vocals peeling back emotions to the bare nerve with the subtle scalpel skills of an Otis or an O. V. Wright. Small wonder that when she sings “Are you scared to wear your heart out on your sleeve?” in ‘You Ain’t Alone’, she immediately adds, “Are you scared of me?”: the emotional surface is that tender it can hardly bear to be touched. But without the apt arrangement it would be wasted effort, and the Shakes adapt the classic ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ dynamic with aplomb, the piano triplets punctuated by dramatic guitar chords that ratchet up the tension. But then, Howard can just as easily evoke the raw edge of Robert Plant, especially over the tango gait of drums and damped guitar that is ‘Rise to the Sun’.
Elsewhere, ‘Hang Loose’ has more than a touch of Creedence Clearwater Revival , thanks largely to Heath Fogg’s lovely, slippery guitar riff. Here and on the irresistible opener ‘Hold On’, his lines slither around the groove like a predatory alligator sneaking through the bayou — but his work always serves the song, rarely squandered on showy solos or flamboyant fills. Bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson, meanwhile, have an earthy, fluid alliance that brings out the drama in the songs — as when, for instance, the bassline of ‘I Found You’ leads into the hook, capped with a declamatory thwack! that spears it into your heart. Boys & Girls is full of those kind of moments, from the stealthy guitar and fingersnaps driving ‘Goin’ to the Party’, to the plaintive distant whistling that aches at the heart of ‘Boys & Girls’ itself. It’s the sound of a band that knows exactly how to animate its songs with the minimum of effort, to maximum effect.
© Andy Gill, The Independent, 11 April 2012