Monday, April 16, 2012

New Music Reviews: Alabama Shakes, Bear In Heaven, Justin Townes Earle

Alabama Shakes-Boys & Girls
ATO Records
Grade: 9.32 (A)
Available At: emusic, Amazon MP3 & CD

I understand it's early in the game for 2012 but I'm finding it odd already that my favorite debut albums from the past two years are from throwback Blues/Soul acts. Last year it was Charles Bradley's fantastic debut "No Time For Dreaming" complete with Stax horns and Bradley's Otis Redding sized vocals. This year I'm surrendering to this debut from north Alabama outfit aptly titled Alabama Shakes.There are tons of influences running through the 11 tracks. Credence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin and any band you can name from the late sixties-early seventies blues era. It's all held together by the soulful and inspiring vocals of lead singer Brittany Howard. Not only is her vocals full of conviction, but they possess a roadworthy toughness. When she's letting go of her pain repeating "How was I supposed to know you were a heartbreaker" on "Heartbreaker" you hang on to each word she belts out following her journey through heartaches and disappointment with a smile. The trick that makes "Boys & Girls" work the most is the band never overpowers Howard's lead. Backing vocals are deadpan but effective on a song like "I Found You". The album is also held together by a loose garage type of recording. Guitars churn along like they're coming out of cheap amps and the percussion isn't afraid to ride a cymbal to submission just for effect (Check out the chorus on "Rise To The Sun"). There are plenty of hooks and just an overall feeling of good vibe of music running through "Boys & Girls". Detractors may find Alabama Shakes late to the Garage Blues scene. After bands like The White Stripes and The Black Keys have ridden this genre to stardom in the last decade, it's not a particularly new phenomenon. But why I think people should check out "Boys and Girls" isn't about aping a successful scene. It's just a good "Rock and Soul"album. Howard and company have planted the seeds to what could be a highly successful career in the future. And in that process, they may have just started a "Second Wave Blues Garage" genre. Like last year's "No Time For Dreaming", "Boys & Girls" act like the last four decades of music never even happened. And to some, that would be a blessing in disguise.

JHO Picks: I Found You, Hang Loose, Rise To The Sun, Heartbreaker, I Ain't The Same
Bear In Heaven-I Love You, It's Cool
Dead Oceans/SC Distribution
Grade: 8.15 (B)
Available At: emusic, Amazon MP3 & CD

Bear In Heaven's excellent sophomore effort "Beast Rest Forth Mouth" in 2009 was a synth escapade. Imagining yourself in a tiny room with the sounds they were creating was euphoric. On their third album "I Love You, It's Cool" the synths take center stage again. After several listens, they're even a bit more rich this time out. A lot of the time they're reminding me of Rush's "Subdivisions" (I'm still not sure if that's a compliment or not, but it's what I'm hearing at least.) When Bear In Heaven is at the top of their game, it's when they create a rush through upbeat tracks, layering synth effects upon sturdy back beats. It's not dance music, nor is it even chillwave, it's way too structured for either movement. The clinical precision works best on "I Love You, It's Cool" with songs like "The Reflection Of You" and "Sinful Nature". The former is one of the best songs they've committed to with synths blasting from every corner of the room and lead vocalist John Philpot delivering his best vocals on the album. "Sinful Nature" adds a New Order/Cure like guitar line for a nice dimension of sound in what should be viewed as a possible left field hit if released as a single this summer. A lot of Bear In Heaven's material is so driven by the music that it the lyrics can be lost and dependent on a memorable chorus or one time line. And unfortunately, that's my gripe with their latest album. There are a half dozen fine songs on "I Love You, It's Cool." But they're lacking knockout punches like you could find on their previous album. "Beast Rest Forth Mouth's" songs: "Lovesick Teenagers", Wholehearted Mess", "Ultimate Satisfaction", "Fake Out"...they all top anything on "I Love You It's Cool". Nonetheless it should keep fans of the band happy even if it's a bit of a sidestep in their progression compared to what could have been another giant leap forward. I'd recommend it on certain days.

JHO Picks: Idle Heart, The Reflection Of You, Sinful Nature, World Of Freakout
Justin Townes Earle-Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Bloodshot Records
Grade: 7.85 (C+)
Available At: emusic, Amazon MP3 & CD

It's LP number five for Justin Townes Earle and this time out, Earle decides to visit Memphis for inspiration. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the standout "Memphis In The Rain". It's breezy organ, muted horns punctuating the Beale street feeling, and Earle delivering a sturdy 12 string guitar lead is my favorite song....easily on "Nothing's Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now."As Earle continues to be the southern gentleman who consistently looks for ways to evolve from album to album, a Memphis feel of an album is not beyond the realm of his possibility. And sometimes it works. The jazz horns makes "Down On The Lower East Side" sound like a Memphis standard from yesteryear. And beyond the obvious addition of horns, what I notice most on "Nothing's Gonna Change..." is how Earle's vocals have very little treatment to them. Earle has a very warm and rich voice that has the power to softly croon (the title track and "Maria" are two great examples) his lyrics of being isolated and far from home (speaking of far from home, try counting the "Geographical" name droppings throughout the album for a drinking'll be feeling good after the short half hour run time). But sometimes it falls a bit short of expectations. "Baby's Got A Bad Idea" is this album's upbeat shit kicker but unlike "Harlem River Blues" nice "Move Over Mama", "...Bad Idea" comes off feeling corny and terribly forced. And sure, Earle still retains the image of a tortured soul singing about his surroundings to paint a lonely portrait (and a whole lot of "Father" and "Mama" nods...). But I just liked it a little better when he was kicking it church revival style on "Harlem River Blues" or musing Americana on "The Good Life" or "Midnight At The Movies". To sum up Earle's latest effort, it's an easy album to admire, but a very hard one to fall in love with. But then again if you're a JTE lover, I'm probably just speaking to a wall.

JHO Picks: Look The Other Way, Maria, Down On The Lower East Side, Memphis In The Rain

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