Alabama Shakes sound exactly like their name would suggest, which is to say they make a kind of rootsy, lo-fi southern rock that may not be clever or complex, but is so brimming with passion and soul that you can almost feel the hot, Alabaman sun beating down on you. The obvious comparison to make stylistically is with The Black Keys, from whom these guys have obviously taken some major pointers, but to simply call them imitators would do them a serious disservice. The first major distinction is that, as lo-fi and bluesy as The Black Keys are, these guys are far rougher and more ragged; more rocky would I suppose be the best way to put it. They bridge the gap, which has already been bridged in the past, between southern rock and blues rock. Think some Lynyrd Skynyrd, the slightest bit of Led Zeppelin, some Creedence Clearwater and a large helping of blues-rock revivalists like The Black Keys and The White Stripes. They’ve got soul, got rhythm, got heart and, most importantly, know how to craft a good hook.
This grasp of songcraft is best demonstrated by the first three songs on the album, all of which are standouts. First is ‘Hold On’, which acts as a statement of intent. The drums crash with steady intensity, the guitars crunch and the lead singer’s vice, which is fantastic, howls with fierce intensity. The chorus is anthemic, the hooks sharp, the production crackly and old fashioned. The whole aesthetic is of an old school garage band. This is the moment on the album when the two genres of rock and blues come together in the perfect storm of, well, awesomeness.
The other standout moment on the album is the third track, ‘Hang Loose’, which, in much the same way as ‘Hold On’ is the blues/rock hybrid, is the album’s best example of pure southern rock. It swings by in a relaxed, bouncy sort of way, propelled by a properly country, rippling guitar riff which calls to mind the best moments of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but sounds enjoyably fresh. The only real criticism I have of the song is that I wish it were longer. The rest of the album is excellent, with particular mention going to the last track, ‘On Your Way’, and ‘Heartbreaker’, but it settles into a more mellow groove for the rest (the two above mentioned tracks excepted) and never quite matches the first half. Yes, the album is front-loaded, but the remaining tracks are strong enough to maintain the integrity of the overall work.
The reason I have dedicated so much space to discussing their influences is because they are written so large across their music. They wear the badges of their favourite bands proudly and defy you not to be cynical, to accept their music on its own, considerable merits rather than nitpick over which particular parts are from which particular band. Having read a Guardian article on them, I can tell you that certain, hipster sorts, immediately decried them as derivative, unoriginal and boring. Such characterisations are, however, lazy, and ignore the wealth of genuine love and enthusiasm for their chosen genre that is soaked into every song on this album. This isn’t the work of imitators or copyists, this is the work of devotees, of fans. This is no shallow pillaging of music’s past, this is a reimagining, a reinvigoration. More than this, though, this is exhilarating, addictive, tremendously fun music brimming with soul, and what can be better than that? This doesn’t do anything spectacular and it isn’t a revolution, but it is all the things I have already mentioned and, let us not forget, this is a debut album. They can only get better, which is something I look forward to.