Thursday, September 24, 2015

Alabama Shakes May Be the Weirdest Jazz-Rock-Fusion Band Out There

Brittany Howard on SNL
     We saw Alabama Shakes the first time on Saturday Night Live right as their first album Boys and Girls was hitting nationally.  Brittany Howard, lead singer, guitarist, and co-songwriter, was so obstinately idiosyncratic that it was hard to watch her without getting the giggles even though she and the rest of her band mates are earnestly serious musicians.  Her facial contortions and peculiar upper body movement belied the beauty of her singing voice.  We didn’t give them much of a thought, while other reviewers were falling all over themselves to praise them.  Australian Courtney Barnett, the latest critical darling, sounds to me like an indolent barista on a smoke break talk/singing the first thing that comes into her head.  I guess I’m missing something.

     I heard “Don’t Wanna Fight,” the lead single from Alabama Shakes’ latest CD Sounds and Color and I was intrigued by what Howard was doing with her voice.  It’s the epitome of an instrument that she treats variously as if it’s woodwind, string, or brass.  The song comments indirectly on the current political unrest in American society, but that doesn’t seem to be the band’s actual intention.  Instead, the theme needs to be taken at face value that the speaker just doesn’t want any conflict; it’s the strength of Howard’s vocal and its relation to the setting in which the rest of the band places it that is the real story.  “Sound and Color,” the first song, salutes the more abstract jazz singers like Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan.  I love Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald, but I find Vaughan intimidating because it’s impossible to know where she might go with a song and those are classics from the American Songbook.  On a number of other tracks, Howard sounds like Etta James, as Kaylee pointed out.  Howard could probably sing both the Jagger and the Merry Clayton parts of “Gimme Shelter” as a solo, rather than a duet.

Alabama Shakes Performing Live*
     Howard and Alabama Shakes go all over the place on original songs that aren’t any more familiar or approachable even after multiple hearings.  I mean that as a compliment.  They leap from rock to blues to soul (sometimes on one track like “Miss You”) to jazz and even some of The Temptations orchestral pop on “Guess Who.”  They then turn around on “The Greatest” and knock off a song that kicks as if it’s the first take and something that John Lennon might have recorded and decided not to release but play live.  They are a band that enjoys recording live and that comes across even on some tracks that have a monolithic beat such as “Dunes.”  

Electric and Eclectic
     “Future People” epitomizes the strong beat and ensemble work of the band while Howard plays along as a literal and metaphorical siren; it’s the essence of what jazz from bebop to fusion did, but with electric instruments.  It’s a wild ride and there are a couple of times when it doesn’t quite work such as the soundscape setting of “Gemini” that really gets into the trance state of both harder rock like Led Zeppelin and the down the rabbit hole funk of Parliament/Funkadelic.  The last cut “Over My Head” acts as both a lovely elegy to what’s come before, but also an expression of real fear about what they’re doing.  Yes, Alabama Shakes may be the poster child for eclectic and, yes, after three years, I get them. 

*Photo by Philip Cosores

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