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.