The Alabama Shakes first gained attention with online buzz about their live performances and the track “You Ain’t Alone” (which garnered a lot of attention when posted by the blog Aquarium Drunkard), a southern soul ballad that follows the simple pattern forever immortalized by Otis Redding. Most modern artists inspired by R&B from the 60s and 70s don’t try their hand at the Redding template – Sharon Jones leans funkier, Lee Fields smoother, Raphael Saadiq and Mayer Hawthorne rely more on Motown’s swing – likely because you need a monster of a vocal instrument to make Redding’s formula effective. Even the Stones, avid fans of all things Otis Redding, only really gave it a shot once, with Sticky Finger’s “I Got The Blues” (they did a darn good job on that one, so perhaps they didn’t feel the need to bother again).
The lead singer of the Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard, has a potent voice, full of gravel and textured explosiveness. She is confident enough to venture into Redding’s territory and talented enough to get the listener’s attention. On “You Ain’t Alone,” she sings over a symmetrical rhythm, carried by either a piano or a guitar (sometimes both) that rises and falls. However, Howard ignores one of Redding’s most important principles: economy. “You Ain’t Alone” clocks in close to five minutes; Redding hardly ever eclipsed four minutes, and most of his songs were closer to three. When you’re working with that kind of power ballad, you want to make your point quickly.
The rest of the Alabama Shakes debut album, Boys And Girls, finds the group working with the ingredients of southern soul, though they are less into groove and more into raucous interplay between guitar, organ, and Howard’s voice. The Shakes can make a racket as a band and they know that Howard’s skills are going to attract a crowd, so they are sometimes overly fond of building into screaming catharsis. When they are less focused on blowing out the speakers, they can be a better band; after all, it never felt like Otis Redding was emoting so fervently just because he could – he did it because he had too. The title track works back into the rising and falling pattern of “You Ain’t Alone,” but this time Howard shows a rounded, melancholy side, and the song ends at around three and a half minutes. “Hang Loose” bubbles along on a buoyant guitar line accompanied by someone slamming home a piano riff, showing that the band is not trapped into a single sound or tempo. The Shakes join a growing number of bands that are finding success working with more traditional R&B sounds.