Saturday, April 14, 2012

Singing songs about the Southland

For all its 24-hour drive-through simplicity, America is a highly confusing place. And vast. In fact it is so confusingly vast that the region known as 'The South' only actually covers the bits at the bottom in the middle and on the right.

To the left of The South is, unsurprisingly, “the South-West”, and this includes states like Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. However, California, the most south-westerly state, is bafflingly not included as it is part of The West.

Florida is also in The South (even including the most southernmost point of the “contiguous” United States) and yet Floridians do not appear to consider themselves Southern in the same way their gun-owning, grits-eating, pick up-driving cousins do elsewhere below the Mason-Dixon Line. Probably because they're having too good a time at the beach.

In the midst of this puzzling geography is Alabama. A squat state just 250 miles long from top to the mere toe it dips into the Gulf of Mexico, it has borne the brunt of misconception about Dixieland, providing a shorthand symbol for clichés about dueling banjos, inbred policemen wearing mirrored sunglasses and dentally-challenged yokels threatening to induce porcine squealing.

What hasn't helped is Alabama's reputation for harbouring right-wing conservatism and the Klu-Klux Klan, but then again it has also been the powerful seat of the American civil rights movement. Still, given this history, it's no surprise that most tourists barreling along I-10 from California to Florida - and probably the only consistency in the southern states - will carry on through to the beaches and theme parks of "The Sunshine State" next door.

Compared with some of its neighboring states, Alabama lacks culturally iconic attractions, unless you are interested in Huntsville being "the rocket capital of the world" and built the rockets for Apollo 11,  that Montgomery - the state capital - was the birthplace of the Confederacy (and Nat King Cole), and that Hitler's typewriter is on display in the town of Bessemer.

Significantly more interesting is the contribution Alabama has made to The South's musical heritage. Muscle Shoals boasts one of the most famous recording studios in music history as well as being the birthplace of WC Handy, the "father of the blues", and Hank Williams - the pioneer of modern country music - was born in a small town on the outskirts of Birmingham. Alabama also featured in one of the most vitriolic exchanges of lyrical handbags between artists, with Lynyrd Skynyrd writing Sweet Home Alabama in response to Neil Young's Southern Man. The fact that two of the members of Skynyrd who wrote the song came from Florida and a third was Californian is neither here nor there. So, yes, southern, but not Southern.

Now, however, Alabama is being plonked loudly back on the musical map by a band who wears its Alabamian origins like a full-body Yakuza tattoo, and who have been described - by just about everyone - as the must-see band of the moment: Alabama Shakes.

With an unashamedly retro sound as sweaty as The South is muggy and mosquito-infested, the Shakes are comprised of the splendidly fruity vocals of former postwoman Brittany Howard and the rhythm section of bassist and co-founder Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson, a trio to match Cropper/Dunn/Jackson in their Memphis prime.

In a short space of time, the Alabama Shakes have built a reputation for stomping live performances of southern soul and blues-infused swamp rock, all of which provides the fabric of their wonderfully down-and-dirty debut album, Boys & Girls.

It's an album that could easily have been recorded in a single, 38-minute session, such is its no-nonsense feel. You'd be tempted to brand it 'lo-fi' until you realise just how ridiculous a description that is, given that back-in-the-day all albums were recorded without the embellishment of multi-tracking and ProTools, the musician's equivalent of CGI.

Such stripped-back authenticity is no affectation and, despite the obvious nods to Janice Joplin in Howard's throatsome singing or Creedence Clearwater Revival in Fogg's riffs (especially on Hang Loose), this is no pastiche, no parody, but a continuation of a musical style unencumbered by contemporary garnish.

Hold On, their debut single, represents this perfectly, building rhythmically with a swelling chug that emerged from an on-stage improvisation ("We threw out that riff," recalls Cockrell, "and Brittany started singing along, and the crowd started singing with her like it was a song they already knew.").

Like all good soul bands, the singer draws the focus of the song, and none more so with Brittany Howard than on I Found You and I Ain't The Same. If, however, you try and ignore the obvious aural resemblance to Joplin, you recognise greater similarities to Otis Redding, in phrasing and the topography of her pitch. You Ain't Alone, in particular, pays inadvertent tribute to Try A Little Tenderness, pulling in the intensity of Joe Cocker or even Led Zeppellin into the bargain. The track is, says Howard, "a slice of the real".

In their early days, the band covered Zeppellin live, so the site of Heartbreaker on the track listing of Boys & Girls did create some expectation, but this particular tale of romantic charlatanism is instead a gloriously rich stab of triple-time R'n'B which reaches its rasping denouement with a pounding organ to match the rancor of the reminiscence.

It would be wrong, however, to look upon Boys & Girls as a musical museum: Rise To The Sun could easily be the product of Alex Turner's southern American cousin, while there are numerous moments on the album which remind of another much-hailed debut flying the Confederate flag, Youth And Young Mahood, the Kings of Leon's 2003 entrance. The Fallowill clan created an enjoyably confounding blend of quirk and rooted tradition (and were also considered the critics' breakthrough darlings), which the Alabama Shakes replicate with On Your Way and the eerily short Goin' To The Party.

Of course, since 2003, the Kings of Leon have spectacularly risen, and spectacularly come to an abrupt halt. The Alabama Shakes will be conscious of not repeating the same trajectory, and that may require the  development of their repertoire and writing acumen. Boys & Girls is a tremendous debut and a relief to anyone worried that the prevalence of Simon Cowell and his oeuvre has in some way brought about the end of both live music and music built on the simplicity of a voice and three instruments. For the good of us all, the Shakes need to come back with a sophomore effort to reassure the casual listener that this is not a flirtation but a long-term relationship.

The Alabama Shakes blow the lid off Austin during SXSW 2012

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