Maybe you've seen one of the new Zales commercials. The ones that show middle-class heterosexual couples sharing warm moments in wintry weather over jewelry boxes, while the 6/8 soul ballad "You Ain't Alone" — the real heat source — plays in the background. The song is by The Alabama Shakes, whose frontwoman, Brittany Howard, goes out on an emotional limb for everyone within hearing, soothing with feathery, scatting notes, gathering herself, then making her promises and pleas in volcanic bursts. This is a singer with the gift of drawing people out of their hardened shells.
No doubt millions of TV viewers will catch these ads before the holiday shopping season is through, and many will be impacted enough by the music to do a little Internet research and learn that the track is not, in fact, a '60s Southern-soul time capsule or an unearthed Janis Joplin gem, but the work of a new young band, rounded out by guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson. And to think that last year at this time nobody outside of small-town Athens, Ala. — where this new young band is from — had heard their nervy Southern blend of garage rock and soul. In a matter of months they've built the sort of buzz publicists strive for — only without a publicist.
On Record Store Day in April, an unknown quartet called The Shakes — soon they'd discover that name was taken and adopt the reference to their home state — played the backyard stage at The Groove New & Used Vinyl & CDs to a dozen-or-so people, one of them being Seth Riddle, a former Rough Trade staffer who's since become GM of the Kings of Leon imprint Serpents & Snakes.
Says Riddle, "After they started playing I was just kind of pinching myself, because it's really rare that you see a band that strikes that chord with you and you've never heard of 'em.
"Usually," he clarifies, "you've heard a little buzz about 'em, and they've got their website up, they've got some digital files up. This band, they didn't have anything. Nothing. There was nothing there. I don't think they had a Facebook page."
Once The Shakes had finished recording their four-song EP at East Nashville's Bomb Shelter Studios and put the music up on ReverbNation, Riddle passed the link along to Justin Gage — author of influential music blog Aquarium Drunkard — and Gage called Howard asking for a track he could share with his readers. "She was very cool, wasn't familiar with music blogs and wondered how I'd heard of them," he says via email.
Gage's late-July Shakes-heralding blog post drew immediate attention, including that of Patterson Hood, who went out and caught one of their shows and, within a couple months, had them opening for the Drive-By Truckers. Howard and her cohorts played Third Man Records during SoundLand and moved on from there to New York's CMJ Music Marathon. Their full-length album is due next year; ATO will release it in the U.S., and Rough Trade will handle the U.K.
This is what the saga of a breaking band can look like in the age of the constantly plugged-in, accelerated news cycle. In the case of The Alabama Shakes, there really is something beneath the hype that people are viscerally responding to. Aquarium Drunkard called it "a slice of the real" — as opposed to stuff that's "fake" and "pre-packaged." NPR music critic Ann Powers noted the pre-packaging inherent in retro soul, but pointed to Howard's artistic self-determination, describing the 22-year-old singer as "a young woman living in the now, wrapping her arms around a tradition without letting it carry her away." New York Times music critic Jon Pareles celebrated the contrast between The Shakes and the typical CMJ buzz band — one that's "built around some cool-headed concept involving noise or irony or ambiguities or primitivism."
The Shakes give no indication that they're pursuing a buzz-worthy musical style as an end in itself. Their singing and playing sounds hungry, dynamic and heartfelt throughout "You Ain't Alone" and the rest of the tracks on their EP, originals with an almost gospely spirit of uplift that touches and transcends the personal.
Who's making the music and how they present themselves — something the Zales ads of course don't reveal — almost always plays some role in how we hear and interpret a work, whether we admit it or not. So it makes a difference that behind the Shakes' remarkable sound are four 20-somethings from the same town: three white guys and a woman of blended racial heritage. Besides helping their lineup stand out — an effect they're likely aware of by now — the fact that a formidable young talent like Howard is finding her voice in a genre that was once a vital hub of African-American innovation makes you want to pay attention to what she and her undeniably well-matched bandmates are up to.