Growing up in the Heart of Dixie, I had to reach deep in my pocket to find a suitable answer to the question, “What good comes out of Alabama?” In addition to a few pieces of lint, usually I came up with Crimson Tide football and Fame studios. And while the rest of America couldn’t care less about Bear Bryant, music fans nationally are now reaping the harvest of whatever mojo was sown in the soil at Muscle Shoals in the 60s and 70s. For if you drive north from Birmingham toward the blues of Memphis or the country twang of Nashville, you will find that you no longer need to leave the state to find the best of both worlds sneaking up on your record player—since 2011, two of the finest music releases have come from two small northern Alabama towns, combined population of 37,000. If you’ve been looking for music to soothe your soul, then I hope you’ve found The Civil Wars, (fronted by Muscle Shoals native John Paul White) whose 2011 release Barton Hollow picked up a few Grammys. And if you are looking for music that will rattle your bones, you, my friend, are looking for Alabama Shakes, a band from Athens, Alabama whose debut album Boys & Girls is a steam engine of soul rounding the bend, chugging toward the straight-away of national acclaim.

“Be Mine,” the opening track from Boys & Girls starts with a languid blues riff of the kind that would be novel if The Black Keys weren’t so ubiquitous. But as soon as Brittney Howard’s whiskey vocals enter the mix, listeners are assured of something different ahead, something akin to rock and roll magic—it doesn’t take long. By the end of the song Howard is singing “Be my baby” with a shamanistic vitality that conjures Wilson Pickett, Aretha Frankin, Mick Jagger and the other ghosts of Muscle Shoals who left their voodoo blues spirits hovering in the humid air. The song is quite staggering.

Equally as staggering is the ease with which Howard drops into Etta James territory on the following song, the tranquil “Boys & Girls.” Even on the slow paced track, Howard is like a champion horse in the paddock at Churchill Downs, her voice full of power waiting to run free. And run free she does, most notably on “I Ain’t the Same,” a song with undercurrents of The Jackson 5.

While Howard, whose voice combines the poise of Sharon Jones and the ruggedness of Macy Gray, is the driving force behind the album, her band mates play unlike the hipsters they appear to be. Watch the clip of the band performing “Hold On” on Conan this past February—by looks you would swear these guys were plucked out of some dive in Austin or Brooklyn. But there they go, playing like they’d been sitting on an upturned fruit crate on the side of a dusty Mississippi road, thumb turned up, trying to make it to the next gig.

In fact, that Conan clip says everything you need to know about Boys & Girls. On their national television debut, Alabama Shakes appeared as if they’ve been together for years, as if the spotlight was old hat. And that aplomb emanates from every song on the record. Along with Howard, Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass) and Steve Johnson (drums) complete the quartet. Their playing is simple but seasoned—no virtuosic performances overshadow the straight line of head boppin’ groves that make listeners want to testify, and with Howard’s vocal confidence laid on top of the artfully crafted instrumentation, only two words can sum up the feeling: “Ummm hmmm.” Or maybe “Daaaamn, girl!” would suffice.

Perhaps Boys & Girls shouldn’t be as surprising as it is. Maybe if the band hailed from Austin this would sound like a hundred other releases from indie bands. Perhaps, but I doubt it. I suspect we’ll see a second straight Grammy find a home in north Alabama, and regardless of the band’s roots, Boys & Girls testifies that Alabama Shakes will have deserved it.

Release Date: April 10, 2012

Label: ATO Records

Stars: 5 out of 5

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