Sunday, November 25, 2012

No Great Shakes

Alabama Shakes--"I Ain't The Same (live)" (mp3)


My title is a little bit unfair.  I actually have nothing against Alabama Shakes.  I own their CD, Boys And Girls, have listened to it several times, especially during long car trips, and find it to be a pleasant enough way to pass thirtysome minutes of those long miles.

I also hazard, with supreme confidence, that this first release of theirs will pop up on "Best of" lists  in magazines and on websites and blogs all over the place when it comes to the end-of-year musical reckoning that we all like to do.  In a way, though, that is more of the problem than the Shakes themselves.

Because I would say to you, the collective mass of music writers and observers, that I know exactly what you are doing.  You are looking for the next.  The next what, you ask?  You tell me.

Janis Joplin?  Dusty Springfield? Grace Slick?  Mama Cass Elliott?  Bonnie Raitt?  Maria McKee?  Because it's really about the woman, isn't it? The woman with the big pipes, Brittany Howard, who projects raw power with her rootsy soul like any of those named above.  The one who could be the heir-apparent.  The one who could return southern R+B as a force?

Or am I wrong?  Are you missing the Stax sound?  Are you missing Memphis soul?  Are you looking for that rhythm and groove, where the band establishes a repetitive groove that allows a singer to show off her range?

All I know is that this good little bar band from Alabama has received a lot of press this year, and, frankly, more than they have deserved.  In my opinion.

So where is the hit, the hook, the catchy number?  The songs are good.  It's a good set.  But there is no standout track, no song that separates itself from the pack.  The changes that the songs rely on are standard R+B changes, as are the riffs and the tempo.  Good stuff.  Not great stuff.  Because when it's over, you can start the CD again and feel like you're getting the same solid, undistinguished material that you would enjoy if you were sitting in a club listening to a local club and thinking, "Hey, they're not bad.  I'll have another beer."

Even listening to the CD again as I write this, I can't find the songs that really do it for me.  They're all "fine."

And where is the context?  If this band is to be the Great White/Southern/Soul/Roots/ Hope, then what exactly is it that they are trying to bring back?  Is the singer the new female Otis Redding?  Or are they just a novelty act?  If Janis were alive and kicking, all of these speculations on my part would be a non-issue.  But she isn't, hasn't been, and none of the other women I mention are doing this kind of material, so there's no real competition. Maybe Susan Tedeschi.  Kind of.  That's fine.  I'm all for the newcomer.  But Alabama Shakes strike me as a retro act without a need to go back in that direction.  And I don't see what they've added new to the genre.

And what about the band?  Yes, they can play their instruments, they seem pretty tight, but again, no player stands out.  There is no great solo, maybe no solo at all, on the entire CD, so no one can claim that the band does anything but lay the foundation, set the stage, etc.  Which takes me back to my original point.  Is this just about the woman?  If the band is reliable enough, then she can do whatever she wants to over top of them?

There is an element of music listeners, many women among them, who do not like the ethereal women singers, the "baby-voiced" women singers, the sirens.  They like the strong, assertive woman who knows exactly what she wants and isn't afraid to sing about it in a non-confessional, non-intimate way.  Big, brash, Bessie Smith-type singing.  And they're going to champion a singer like Brittany Howard, a band like Alabama Shakes.

I'm just not sure that this band has enough to justify that.  Usually, Billy and I try to promote new bands and save any skewering for sacred cows.  But I just keep seeing Alabama Shakes name around, showing up on television, on my Ipod, opening for Neil Young, getting mentioned on blogs, and I thought I needed to challenge the hype.

I fully realize what I'm doing, too.  I'm trying to have my cake and eat it, too.  I want there to be great new music, and then when a band like this comes along, I chop them off at the legs and say, in essence, that they can't touch the legends of the past.  But I don't think I do that all the time.  I like a myriad of newer bands for their own, idiosyncratic merits.  This time, I'm just not seeing it, though I promise you, I've tried.

1 comment:

Billy said...

Surprisingly, I agree with you on this one, Bob. I listened to this album streaming online back at the height of the hype this summer and kept wondering what all the fuss was about. The Shakes ain't anything to be ashamed of, but there's just no There there.

And just to be fair, for every band you or I have knocked, we've promoted and praised two dozen. Music-lovin' karma is on our side.