- Alabama Shakes
- Boys & Girls
Alabama Shakes Boys & Girls (ATO Records)
Janis Joplin The Pearl Sessions (Legacy Recordings)
Historically, it’s been the kiss of death for too many:
“The next Bob Dylan.”
“The next Bruce Springsteen.”
“The next Stevie Ray Vaughan.”
Early on, an artist or band gets slotted by the mainstream music press and, saddled with a pair of shoes they may have never intended to fill in the first place, cannot live up to the label laid upon them. Crash and burn or fade away – maybe it would’ve happened regardless; the title of “the next …” almost guaranteed it.
Consider for a moment the Alabama Shakes – or, more specifically, the widespread comparison of the Shakes’ lead vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard to the late Janis Joplin. On one hand, it’s an easy one to make; on the other, it’s a lazy one – and not fair to either party.
It just so happens that we have new releases – the Shakes’ debut and a revisit to Janis’ classic Pearl – to put an ear to. Without falling prey to the above-mentioned trap, it does make for some interesting comparisons.
At the time of the Alabama Shakes’ sessions for Boys And Girls, they were a quartet: bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson combining rock machine wallop with smooth and slinky Muscle Shoals-style rhythm textures; guitarist Heath Fogg laying down a blend of Steve Cropper tastefulness and Buddy Guy apeshit bluesiness (‘tis true); and Brittany Howard testifying in a manner well beyond her years while playing some just-right rhythm guitar. The handwriting was on the wall, however: there were four guests on the album – Paul Horton, Micah Hulscher, Mitch Jones, and Ben Tanner – and all of them were keyboardists, contributing to six of the album’s eleven cuts. And there were other times when Howard herself made use of the studio setting, adding a dash of keys to a track.
Since then, Tanner has joined the Shakes as a full-time key man, a move that makes good sense. While the core four make a lot of joyful noise themselves, it’s the added wallop of the hallelujah organ on “I Found You”, the Farfisa cheese on “Rise To The Sun”, and the stripped-to-the goodness piano on “You Ain’t Alone” that seals the deal.
Hats off to the Alabama Shakes for handling the album production and mixing themselves with the help of Andrija Tokic (who also served as engineer) – and getting it right. Seldom does a band this young have this good of a grip on who they are and how they’re meant to sound. The material on Boys And Girls is a cool hybrid mix of Phil Spectorish depth with a rawness that isn’t afraid to let an amp crackle or an off-mic yelp stay right where it is if it serves the soul of the song.
The vibe is all over the place – in the best of ways. There’s wild-assed surf music from Mars (how many sticks – and drum heads – did Steve Johnson break on the death-defying rolls of “On Your Way”?). “I Found You” and the title tracks are total leather-jacket-under-the-streetlight from-the-hearters. “Hang Loose” was meant to blast out of the speaker of a transistor radio cooking in the midday sun. “Goin’ To The Party” combines gum-chewing doo-wop innocence with a wry wisdom. There’s even some vintage Faces to be found: Fogg’s midrange-soaked tone on “Be Mine” recalls Ronnie Wood in his prime and the rave-up at the end is sheer A Nod Is As Good As A Wink -era powerhouse rollick.
If I had to choose a single cut to introduce someone to the Shakes’ music, it would be the album opener “Hold On”. Johnson kicks it off with a steady heartbeat; rhythm mate Cockrell joins in after a few seconds with a bassline that tucks into the groove so tightly it’s almost indistinguishable from the drums. Fogg is in Memphis mode: cool and measured steps up and down the fret board over top of Howard’s chunked-out rhythm.
Bless my heart, bless my soul
Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old
Howard’s vocal nails the song’s essence early on – like Neil Young in “Sugar Mountain”, hers is the voice of a young person with the self-realization of an old soul. The delivery is sincere without overplaying it; the result is – 15 words into the song – you’re a believer.
There must be someone up above
Sayin’ “Come on, Brittany – you gotta come on up”
And right then, Howard thumps you straight in the heart by making it personal … sharing the view from a low place and the appreciation for having made it clear of there.
You gotta hold on
She testifies on the chorus while Fogg breaks into a tumbling guitar lick that would make Mr. Cropper smile, concluding it with a cool, twangy touchdown. When they hit the bridge, Howard has both advice and reality to offer:
You know you gotta wait
She lays it down as the band helps drive the point home behind her, all drumtrumble/bassrumble/guitarcrash.
But I don’t wanna wait
She admits, letting it fly in a blast that combines frustration, joy, and honesty. It’s one of the many moments on Boys And Girls that beckons to the Janis Joplin comparisons; the fact of the matter is there are traces of many great voices to be found here – from the soul raunch of Etta James to the coolness of Lou Ann Barton.
While it feels as if Howard is laying herself open with her vocals, there’s a certain sureness and confidence underneath it all – never, ever cocky … just a solid sense of being. It’s something that Janis Joplin seemed to be looking for right up until her death of a heroin overdose at the age of 27. Howard is powerful; Janis was powerful and vulnerable – both in the studio and on stage. The absolute wringing out of her total self with every performance is an intoxicating thing to take in; the sad part is, the feelings that fueled it also made for a hard and short life.
Howard knows when to belt and when to bring it in close, as does the rest of the band. “Hold On” eventually coasts to a gentle halt with an amp gasping for breath in the background – a total goosebump moment. It’s a powerful performance by all. And in Howard’s case, it feels like something she’s capable of doing for a while. To listen to the newly-released The Pearl Sessions, you can’t help but feel that what Janis Joplin gave every time she stepped to the mic had to eventually run out.
The Pearl Sessions is a two-disc collection combining the original album’s ten tracks and mono-mixed singles with a collection of studio outtakes and alternate versions.
For those who’ve never gotten into the music of Janis Joplin, this is a no-brainer perfect place to start. And even if the original Pearl has been part of your collection in one form or another since its release in January of 1971, The Pearl Sessions is still worth having – maybe even more so. If nothing else, the first disc offers the pleasure of having the mono mixes all in one place. As discovered with 2010’s Bob Dylan mono box set, the stereo mix of a particular tune can sometimes define it in a way that’s untrue to the original performance – whereas the mono version allows you to feel the true depth of the space and the placement of the players. It’s worth experiencing, for sure.
Disc two is the true payoff of The Pearl Sessions, however. Some may question the repetition of three passes at “Get It While You Can” or “Move Over” – but listen to what happens. In the case of “Move Over”, Janis’ Full Tilt Boogie Band (who’d backed her on the legendary Festival Express train trip through Canada) is working their way through the arrangement on the spot. The early takes are much slower; guitarist John Till is looking for the right approach to the fills and bends that accompany Janis’ opening vocal. Janis and producer Paul Rothchild coach him through it – and when Till nails what Janis is hearing in her head, we hear her explode in a joyous cackle … and we realize that she in her way was as much a producer of this music as Rothchild.
Full Tilt – Till, bassist Brad Campbell, drummer Clark Pierson, and the miles-deep keyboard duo of Ken Pearson (organ) and Richard Bell (piano) – were a killer group of musicians. You hear them exploring and pushing the tunes from take to take – never at the expense of the song’s groove, but rather in search of it. They’re listening to Janis, as she’s there with them on every take, and it’s fascinating to hear all of them search and discover together.
The numerous “Overheard in the Studio …” conversations are funny, bawdy, and revealing. It’s easy to hear the chemistry between Janis and producer Rothchild – he knew how to push her in a good way; she knew how to push back and get to a place that only she knew existed inside of her. And the sadness is never far below the surface: after bantering about a bassline that needs to sound “like a sigh” – resulting in Rothchild offering to cut “a whole special track just for breathing,” Janis counters with having “another track for weeping.” She laughs after she says it – but there’s an ache beneath it all.
There’s an outtake of “Cry Baby” where Janis goes into a rap about a man who has told her, “I have to go to Africa … or I have to go to Omaha … or someplace like that – I have to find myself, you know what I mean?” and leaves to walk “the highways of America with a fucking pack on his back.” At that moment, with no audience except her bandmates in the studio and Rothchild on the other side of the glass, Joplin was purging her hurt over a real-life lover leaving her side. That run-through was four-minutes-and-fifty-nine-seconds of pumping her emotional bilges – a mixture of both courage and vulnerability.
The original acoustic demo of “Me And Bobby McGee” might be the most revealing of all – not for the pre-song banter (a nervous-sounding Janis asks, “Am I getting my Texas accent back?” to which Rothchild replies, “I hope so …” but for the take itself. It’s just Janis and her acoustic guitar and the little intro she plays (which didn’t make it onto the finished version) tells all: it’s pure coffee-house-folksinger-gal guitar … a nod to her roots both geographically and soul-wise. It serves as a reminder that no matter how brutally powerful Janis’ performances might have been, there was a relatively fragile person beneath it all.
Janis spent the night of October 3, 1970 in the studio running through “Buried Alive In The Blues” with the band. She died alone in her hotel room sometime in the early hours of October 4. On the 10th, the band – back in the studio to finish up some tracks for the album – began an impromptu, somber instrumental jam. A portion of it is included here, simply titled “Pearl”. It needs no further words.
After burrowing into both of these albums, the question needs to be asked: is it really fair to compare the Alabama Shakes/Brittany Howard to Janis Joplin (and any of the bands she worked with)?
The answer is no.
The Shakes have laid the groundwork for a path that’s all their own. True, they have a frontgal blessed with a unique and real-as-hell style, but this is a band, boys and girls. Each individual is exceptionally talented – the whole is a one-of-a-kind concoction.
And Janis Joplin? There’s only one Janis – forever 27 and tucked into a sonic locket that we can open anytime we need a hit of what she had to offer: the sound of a soul bared and the sweat of a heart totally wrung out.
If I were to make any connection between the Alabama Shakes and Janis Joplin, it would be to somehow send the Shakes’ music back in time and for Janis to hear “Hold On” – just once.
If music is capable of saving a life, this might just have done it.