The Month in Music: Alabama Shakes, M. Ward, Norah Jones

Boys & Girls – Alabama Shakes

Based on word of mouth that spread like wildfire, Alabama Shakes became one of this year’s biggest buzz bands, garnering lots of hype leading up to the release of Boys & Girls, their debut full-length. As with any buzz band, once the hipsters all realized, “Wait, other people actually like this band?” there was a little bit of backlash against them – but now that the dust has had time to settle, what’s the truth about this album? The truth is that it’s awesome, full of sweaty, earth-rattling, honest-to-goodness blues rock that gets as deep into your bones as it does your head. Alabama Shakes is mainly influenced by the bluesy, soulful music of the ’50’s and ’60’s (think Otis Redding, The Temptations, etc.), but what makes them interesting and distinctly modern is the simultaneous influence of contemporary indie rock, an influence they readily acknowledge. This is heard best in songs like “Rise to the Sun” and “Hold On”, which sound like they could be old standards until some distinctly modern-sounding guitar squall kicks in and overwhelms everything. The ingredient that makes their music so satisfying, though, is front-woman Brittany Howard’s voice. It’s gritty, soulful, and passionate, and she’s in complete control of it, whether howling in rage about how she’s been done wrong or cooing sweet nothings in barely a whisper. This is an outstanding debut that proves the band is way more than just hype, and that they are a force to be reckoned with.

Start with: “Hold On”, “Hang Loose”, “Heartbreaker”

 

A Wasteland Companion – M. Ward

Perhaps better known as the male half of She & Him with Zooey Deschanel, M. Ward has had an outstanding solo career for several years now, and A Wasteland Companion, his eighth solo album, continues that pattern. I once read a description of his sound as “soft-spoken, hard-edged Americana”, and that to me is the perfect way of describing it. He mixes a poignant tenderness, heard often in the gorgeous, wistful sounds of his acoustic guitar, with a sharper edge and irascible sense of fun, and this is as true as ever on AWC. While it doesn’t quite hit the pop peaks of some of the tracks on its predecessor, 2009’s Hold Time (see songs like “Never Had Nobody Like You” and “Epistemology”), it nevertheless contains a ton of true gems, from the fun (and insightful) bounce of “I Get Ideas” to the beautiful, classical sound of the title track. Ms. Deschanel herself appears on two tracks, “Me and My Shadow” and “Sweetheart”, and Ward uses her voice to great effect in very different ways, as a haunting background touch in the former and a sly, flirty presence in the latter. The only minor misstep here to me is “Watch the Show”, which sounds really cool but never totally develops the narrative in the lyrics, which dampens its emotional impact. Minor quibbles, though, on an overall outstanding effort from Mr. Ward.

Start with: “Primitive Girl”, “I Get Ideas”, “Pure Joy”

 

Little Broken Hearts – Norah Jones

There is one gigantic shadow that hangs over this album and must be addressed before anything else, and it is that of Danger Mouse. When I heard that Norah Jones was working with Danger Mouse on this album, I was apoplectic. Let me explain. It is undeniable that Danger Mouse has a very distinctive sound, sort of like a highly compressed spaghetti western thing, and that’s OK (even if it unpleasantly reminds me of Quentin Tarantino movies, which I hate, but that would be a whole other post). His sound is not in and of itself bad – I even like his work with, for example, Gnarls Barkley and Broken Bells. What I hate, though, is when he works with artists who are already established and forces their music into The Danger Mouse Mold, rather than working to bring out their true sound. Put more simply, ALL THE MUSIC HE PRODUCES SOUNDS THE SAME. It’s almost as if he’s a musical parasite, latching onto the host artist and infecting their sound with his annoyingly clipped drums and watery guitars. That’s a little harsh, because I don’t totally hate his sound; I just hate how he seems to be homogenizing the indie rock landscape by working with lots of different artists and giving them all the same makeover. So, much like Beck’s Modern Guilt and the Black Keys’ El Camino, on Little Broken Hearts we end up with a very good album that is marred by the fact that it sounds more like Danger Mouse than it does the artist who created it. All this aside, though, the songwriting on LBH is excellent (and while Jones gets the lion’s share of the credit for that, Danger Mouse was credited as a co-writer, so to be fair, he probably had something to do with it as well). This is most definitely a break-up album, and Jones pulls no punches lyrically or otherwise. Highlights include “Say Goodbye”, in which Jones sends off a failed relationship in a sinisterly deceptive sing-song voice; “After the Fall”, which is gorgeously heartbreaking, driven along by a numbly disinterested drum pattern and Jones’s pained harmonies; and “Take It Back”, which has the restrained danger in the melody that was so appealing on much her last album, The Fall. It’s certainly no surprise that Norah Jones has produced an album full of quality songs, and I hope that next time around she’ll ditch Danger Mouse and continue to develop the excellent sound she has proven she already has.

Start with: “Say Goodbye”, “After the Fall”, “Happy Pills”

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