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Alabama Shakes are perfecting imperfection

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When a friend drew our attention to Alabama Shakes in the fall of 2011, we were confident that a broad swath of people would fall in love with the band. After all, the Shakes' roots reached down into the same mud as The Black Keys' Brothers, the undisputed smash-hit of 2010, and Adele's 21, which dominated the charts in 2011. The Shakes' story is very familiar: Hundreds of hours of hard work paid off overnight, thanks to being in the right place at the right time. Four years into their career, a time when many groups would be doing well to achieve modest regional success, the Shakes tour nationally and abroad, have two Grammy nominations for their debut full-length, and boast a burgeoning legion of fans whose ranks run the gamut from fire-breathing troubadour Neko Case to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. The backwoods dive bars of 2009 have given way to theaters; opening slots for luminaries like Jack White have turned into equal billing at festivals with The National.

Despite the dominance of dance-oriented, grid-based music in the pop world, a substantial audience remains hungry for sounds that aren't perfect, whether or not they stretch very far beyond established comfort zones. The Shakes' gospel-inflected soul aesthetic is well-rehearsed, but the group let passion rule over technical excellence, giving Boys and Girls — the LP they recorded at Andrija Tokic's Bomb Shelter in Nashville — a similar appeal to that of records by contemporary garage rockers. "If there's mistakes, there's mistakes," frontwoman Brittany Howard told The New York Times' Jon Pareles in 2012. "We left them, because what mattered was the overall feel. Perfect, that's boring."

There is some truth to the criticism that attention showered on Alabama Shakes threatens to overshadow groups who work just as hard but take more risks in their music. The world we live in is far from a perfect place where one group's success guarantees a leg up for its peers. However, the Shakes have already used their leverage to bring local acts Fly Golden Eagle and Majestico — some of whose members contributed to Boys and Girls — to a national audience. Moreover, the group's mainstream breakthrough shines a light on the quality and diversity of music coming from all over the South, and bands like Birmingham, Ala.'s St. Paul and the Broken Bones are already becoming a distinct regional presence. With a dose of the luck that paid off for the Shakes, Muscle Shoals' garage punkers Nightmare Boyzzz and Birmingham's rootsy psych wizards Through the Sparks will become household names before long.

Email music@nashvillescene.com.

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