Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Jon Ashley at Echo Mountain in Asheville, NC
The Alabama Shakes have been telling a story about how, a year or so ago, they were having a difficult time finding gigs. When you listen to the Athens, Alabama group's debut full-length, "Boys and Girls," such a claim seems preposterous. Things are obviously different for them these days - riding a serious wave of acclaim and fever in both the U.S. and overseas - but we'll take them at their word that they are just removed from lean and head-scratching times when not much was working and the hard work wasn't paying off all that much. It really makes you wonder what folks were thinking when they were dismissing such songs.
The music that lead singer Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson make is loaded with the drag of a southern summertime, the heat of kitchen, the pistol-waving nature of a long, drunken Saturday night and the soulful attitude of a visit to the neighborhood place of worship the following Sunday morning. The latter trip is meant for repentance and for howling at some power that keeps making things so hard. The way that Howard and the gang present these stories of lovers gone wrong and wronger is by making the situations feel as if they were being pulled up by the shoulders, up and out of baptismal waters, or some equivalent. The songs come out as if the people in the middle of them are about as lost as lost can be and their heads are spinning, gathering speed and giving off steam out of their ears. They're overheated and they've ground their teeth down in their slumber, sick with worry and devastated that nothing's going the way that they want it to go between them and the one they want, or the one they thought they had.
These people are swimming in hot waters and they've been flailing some for a while. One thing they might be craving is a new start, something clean. They're willing to fight for what they want - for what they feel like they deserve - but they'd rather just find a little comfort, some soft piece of grass beneath a majestic, old tree where they can just lie with someone hand-in-hand, without the fucking drama. The way Howard sings it - as if her world were ending and she's got one more song to get everything off her chest - she flings herself into these tight spots, these jams where there's no arguing with a heart that thinks it's right and that everyone else is wrong. She sings on "Be Mine," "Might want to rip us apart/If they want to fight/Then I've started fucking with the wrong heart/They've got another thing coming/Or I'm gonna be a dead woman/But I'd do it for you," and it's just a measure of the lengths that she'll go for that thing that's beating roughly in that chest. It's the thing that beats so roughly in all four of the Shakes' chests and it's the reason that they might never experience those lean times again.