Six Degrees of Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.10.12 in Six Degrees

It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.

The Album

Alabama Shakes' debut offers a soul-rock fusion so direct and simple it makes you wonder why nobody did it sooner. To put it simply, they play soul-derived music with a rock rhythm section (drummer Steve Johnson, bassist Zac Cockrell), and an extremely adaptable singer (Brittany Howard) and guitarist (Heath Fogg) on top. (Additional help comes from keyboard sideman Ben Tanner.) Their slow songs are imbued with a pastoral Southern feel, even at higher volumes, while the faster ones ("I Found You") stomp and soar, with Howard riding the sound like a rodeo cowgirl and Fogg filling the holes with his biting, incisive licks. Tracks like the yearning "You Ain't Alone" have the rise-and-fall structure of classic soul, but are played with rock oomph, while "Heartbreaker" is, essentially, a soul power ballad. "Be Mine" builds to a hellacious climax, Howard unleashing some of her most fervent cries and whispers before going out in a cathartic frenzy. She's unlike any other singer out there right now; she can plead and she can strut, and she hits all the notes effortlessly in both her highest and lowest registers. And no matter how acrobatic her voice, she stays down to earth; tracks like "Hold On" ("Bless my heart/ Bless my soul/ Didn't think I'd make it/ To 22 years old," she sighs, sounding ancient) cast her as a rock Everywoman. Alabama Shakes may be a roots band specializing in punchy songs with concise players, but it's built for arenas as much as for clubs. What makes it hit with such power is the more subtle lessons taken from soul music — the way they flesh out the sound with Johnson's cymbal washes; Fogg's knack for jumping from fat rhythm lines to barbed fills and back; Howard's tangled rhythm guitar; the use of silence as a musical tool; the celebratory nature of even the saddest songs. Got-ta got-ta have it, and they do.

Check out free tracks from Alabama Shakes and other great ATO bands on this sampler.

Big Daddy

The Dictionary Of Soul

Otis Redding

Generally regarded as his finest album, and also his last studio set before he died, this could just as easily be called Encyclopedia of Soul for the way it expands on Redding's early style. What makes it extraordinary, besides Redding's singular vocal gifts, is the simpatico between him and Booker T and the MG's, especially guitarist Steve Cropper. Cropper's rhythm-and-riff backing for Redding is somewhat different from what he did behind countless other soul stars; while his rock-solid rhythm lines similarly cement the bottom created by bass and drums, his succinct fills can be continuations of or contrasts with Redding's singing. They required a musical understanding between the two as intuitive as their songwriting partnership. While Otis would still be just as great a singer without Cropper, his style would probably be noticeably different. The interplay between guitar and voice is crucial.

Blue-Eyed Boy & Girl

On Tour With Eric Clapton

Delaney & Bonnie And Friends

Fried from his experiences with Cream and Blind Faith, Clapton chose to regroup by playing behind rock's 1969 flavor-of-the-month band. It was a good move. Delaney & Bonnie brought upbeat blue-eyed soul, shaded by gospel and country, to the ‘60s rock mix, igniting a trend that peaked with Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen. Bonnie could shout or purr with a languid Southern feel that embraced rural black and white cultures alike — her solo turn on the retooled gospel of “That's What My Man Is For” is divine. And Delaney's own charged, red-dirt vocals pushed her harder. In a band that featured his future Dominoes as well as Dave Mason and George Harrison, Clapton felt less need than usual to flash; being Clapton, he did anyhow on “Coming Home” and “I Don't Want to Discuss It,” but just as often was content to drive the band on rhythm. Soul-rock heaven.

Young Old Soul

The Essentials: Betty Wright

Betty Wright

She was 14 years old when she first charted in 1968 with "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do," a month shy of 18 when she had her biggest hit with "Clean Up Woman." She sounded very young on both. When “Tonight Is the Night,” which she'd first recorded in '74, was redone with a monologue on a 1978 live album and became a two-sided hit, she was closing in on 25 and she still< /i> sounded very young. Wright has a four-octave vocal range, and has always been able to sound as young or as old as she wants. Her Miami soul records often featured criss-crossing guitars that still sound sharp, and "Clean Up Woman" has been sampled repeatedly. She keeps up with modern music just enough to get by, but scorns sampling and likes the sound of real instruments. In these ways, Wright sounds timeless next to most of her peers.

Time Is On Her Side

In 1973, Swamp Dogg brought this New Orleans veteran out of L.A. exile to cut In Between Tears. It was her first album as a mature adult, she was at her career peak as a singer, and her self-assurance helped carry polemics like the bitter “We Won't Be in Your Way Anymore.” Moreover, at that time Swamp Dogg was brimming with outsider-rock savvy. So while the music was undeniably soul — and undeniably one of the great soul albums of its time — there was more (and a different) attitude than Irma flaunted before or since. But Swamp felt he never got to finish the album properly; two decades after its initial release, he replaced most of the original musicians with synthesizers and digital drums, dumped some songs while adding others, and mixed the results with echo overkill, re-titling it Turn My World Around. This edition combines both versions, with tracks one to 11 representing the original album. Save yourself some money and stop downloading after that.

Unfortunate Son

For a guy who lived such a tortuous life, Hinton wrote remarkably triumphant songs most of the time, starting with this album's title track: “Always told you I'd be coming back in a Cadillac/ More riches than anybody else in town.” This, to kick off an album done after Hinton had been rescued from living on the streets of Decatur, Alabama, with mental issues intensified by drug and alcohol addictions. Eddie assimilated Otis Redding like no other white boy, personifying heart-on-sleeve emotion with each utterance. He was heartbreaking on slow drags like “I Need a Woman,” exhilarating on rockers like “Uncloudy Days.” And his guitar licks (he'd been a key Muscle Shoals sideman) were unorthodox but always fit the song like a glove; he alternated between a razor-sharp choppiness that was Delta swampy and a rolling jangle that was almost folk-rock, unobtrusive but always right there. This is the Great Lost Post-Soul Soul Album.