Alabama Shakes, the Sound of Summer, But Don’t Hold That Against Them.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells, last year it was Odd yawn Future (reviewed earlier here). And this year, the breakthrough act to emerge from SXSW was, by all accounts, Alabama Shakes. And already you can hear the backlash to the release of their debut album Boys & Girls beginning to build.

Much the same thing happened after Amy Winehouse released what was her second and, as it turned out, her final album, Back to Black. One minute, all the right people were smiling approvingly stroking their beards and nodding their heads to the silky new sound. The following morning, it was everywhere.

They never really forgave her. Which is most unfair. It’s hardly her fault if everyone else is desperately trying to latch on to the next big thing. And you can detect that same sense of faint resentment seeping out between the lines in the admiring reviews that Boys & Girls has been provoking.

Yes they’ve paid their dues, and Brittany Howard plainly means everything she sings. And the energy and passion of their live shows has mostly been faithfully reproduced here in the recording studio. And there’s no mistaking that aura of authenticity, and the sense that here’s a band who go to bed with the Phil Spector box set Back to Mono by their bedside.

And yes, after they’ve finished touring with him this year, their next album is certain to be produced by Jack White, who’s sure to even further fine-tune their impeccable musical instincts. But you just know that come the summer, this album’s going to be all over the place.

On ads, movie soundtracks, jet-set catwalks, and, finally, as background muzak in all the lazy retro women’s retail discount clothing boutique stores in every shopping mall in the western world, and eventually beyond.

But you can only really hold that against them if they’re the kind of band who are actively courting that sort of attention. And goodness knows, there are enough bands out there that are. But this plainly isn’t one of them.

But what are you going to do? The fact of the matter is, Alabama Shakes sounds like a latter-day Janis Joplin has joined the stage at a private party hosted by Prince to briefly take the mike and lead his band. And nobody can believe what they’re hearing, least of all the host. You’ve been warned.

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NPR’s Pitch-perfect “All Songs Considered” Podcast, Your Weekly Music Fix.

At the end of last year, the terribly clever bean counters at The New York Times decided that what the organization needed was to make it more like a traditional newspaper, and less like something more attuned to the 21st century. So they axed nearly all of their superb podcasts, leaving just a skeletal three. And one of those included in the cull was, alas, the excellent Popcast.

So in January of this year I went in search of a replacement podcast for all things musical, and was quickly pointed in the general direction of NPR’s “All Songs Considered“. And despite only tuning in to it for the last few weeks, I can confidently declare it mandatory listening.

National Public Radio is an enlightened attempt in the US to replicate the (at least original) ethos behind the BBC. It’s a non-profit organization and the programmes that are produced there are made by people because they’re the kinds of programmes that they would like to hear aired, and they rightly assume that there must be others who are similarly curious. They are in other words programmes that are made regardless of ratings.

All Songs Considered is the musical version of one of their most successful shows, All Things Considered, and it first aired on the web a little over ten years ago. It’s chaired by Bob Boilen, who created it, and Robin Hilton, and between them they manage to strike exactly the right balance of careful casualness and quiet planning. You get the impression that you’re eaves-dropping on a private conversation, but one that you’re meant to be over-hearing. And the areas that they cover every week with each of their guest reviewers really are all-encompassing.

A recent edition for instance looked at the collaboration between Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the veteran avant-garde Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki. Hearing how in awe the former is of the latter, and how unashamedly he echoes him on his soundtrack to There Will Be Blood was a revelation.

In another which focused on electronica, they gave us a taste of the latest project from Joe Goddard, one half of Hot Chip whose The 2 Bears, and yes, they really do dress up and DJ in bear suits, is about to release its debut album.

And it was here too, in an earlier edition again, that I was introduced to the ethereal delights of the bewitching Julianna Barwick, whose album I reviewed here earlier.

Next week they’re previewing this year’s South By Southwest, and the following week they’ll be covering the event proper. SXSW is to music what Sundance is to film. It has in other words become so much a part of the mainstream that referring to it now as being in any way indie is frankly laughable. Nevertheless, it still manages to somehow unearth an undiscovered gem every year.

In 2010 it was Sleigh Bells (whose follow up album Reign Of Terror has just been released). And on this, its 20th anniversary, it’s unlikely to prove any less illuminating. Either way, the best place to keep tabs on it is All Songs Considered’s pitch-perfect podcast, which you can find here.

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