Something extraordinary happens when Brittany Howard sings. Howard, 23, fronts Alabama Shakes, a group steeped in the sounds of Muscle Shoals guitar soul and Southern rock on its full-length debut, “Boys & Girls” (ATO). Her charisma as a performer seems to exert a gravitational pull, and you can almost see the music drawing into a tight orbit around her powerful vocals.
It helps, of course, that the rest of the band — bassist Zac Cockrell, guitarist Heath Fogg and drummer Steve Johnson — is more than able to keep up with her. Together, the quartet locks into an unerring groove that spills over with catchy guitar licks, rock-solid bass and taut, deep-pocket drums.
First single “Hold On” starts buttoned up and comes untucked, thanks to electrifying drum breaks that ratchet up the tension and guitars that sound crumblier each time through. “Hang Loose” rides a steady piano vamp that anchors a rolling guitar riff, and “You Ain’t Alone” starts spare and builds in intensity until Howard is all but sobbing out the refrain while the band brings the song home.
Their interplay is even more gripping on “Be Mine” as Howard and the other musicians spur each other on, and by the end she’s screaming “Be my baby” while the band kicks in to a wash of galloping drums, ringing piano and tough, turned-up guitars that bring the song crashing to a close. It’s a dazzling performance on an album that is often transcendent, and never less than riveting.
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