“Retro Soul” was a label that got thrown around a lot after Alabama Shakes’ 2011 EP (of which all three songs are included in this album). Listening to those songs, it’s understandable, but with Boys & Girls, the band makes it clear that while there are plenty of influences (blues, soul, etc.), it’s all filtered through rock. The production echoes that as well with a nice warm sound that enhances the live feel of the album.
The “soul” tag is thanks in large part to Brittany Howard’s powerful, husky, soulful vocals. Listening to the album, a friend mentioned Janis Joplin — an easy comparison but there are others. Howard can go from a strong rock vocal to some Al Green flourishes (“You Ain’t Alone”) to a vocal reminiscent of 50’s and 60’s soul (“I Found You”) and beyond. She can whisper, she can scream and it never seems forced.
Fortunately, the music is there, too. The rhythm section of Zac Cockrell and Steve Johnson along with Heath Fogg’s nice lead guitar work and Howard’s rhythm guitar add up to such an organic sound that defies whatever clever labels anyone might want to throw at it. That’s probably the band’s biggest strength. In spite of the varied influences (which make a lot of sense hailing so close to Muscle Shoals), Boys & Girls is immediate, infectious, fun. Right from the opening of “Hold On,” it grabs you.
That’s not to say it’s a perfect album, but when a band steps up with a debut that is so unquestionably their own, the quibbles seem immaterial. Lyrically, they paint with pretty broad strokes, but this isn’t singer-songwriter fare. This is rock, and within that context, the lyrics (with themes of love, heartbreak, change and perseverance, among others) more than hold up. Sonically, they’re a mighty good southern counterpart to rock revivalists like The Black Keys or The White Stripes. For anyone interested in American blues, soul, and rock (with a decidedly southern flavor), take notice. Alabama Shakes.