Alabama Shakes, Brixton Electric, London
Rizzle Kicks, The Dome, Brighton
Is it a problem that the Alabama Shakes' 'raw' and 'natural' soul-rock is nothing of the sort? Only until they start playing ...
Sunday 06 May 2012
The music business is having a collective "moment" over Alabama Shakes. The retro-styled Southern soul-rockers were the biggest buzz at this year's SXSW convention in Texas, and "the biz" is out in force tonight.
We've now reached a point in popular music where it hardly raises a shrug that the Hot New Thing is a precise simulacrum of some moment in distant rock history.
Close your eyes and you could be listening to Kings of Leon or The Black Crowes. Or – let's go back to the source – Lynyrd Skynyrd or The Allman Brothers. Open them and you see Brittany Howard, an unglamorous, shabbily dressed young black woman in wild hair and nerdy specs, squinting and howling like she's Janis Joplin. The cognitive dissonance between the two is the gimmick, and it's hard to imagine there'd have been nearly as much fuss without it.
Gimmick? With a band as raw and natural as Alabama Shakes? Why, yes. I realise that's hard to swallow for authenticity fetishists, besotted with the fantasy that the Shakes have been dredged up from the alluvium of some Dixieland swamp, but it's time for a reality check. These 20-somethings, born in the Eighties, will almost certainly have grown up watching My So-Called Life, playing on Sega Megadrives and listening to *NSYNC, not sitting on a porch swing learning bottleneck blues.
Alabama Shakes know exactly which buttons they're pushing. Their early official photos depict them standing in woodland, dressed like frontiersmen and women, with at least one member whose entire head is made of beard, and a dog. They won't be seen onstage with anything other than the sort of old-school Orange amps that Canned Heat might have used. Even the name ticks the right boxes.
"I'm not who I used to be," runs one Shakes lyric, and ain't that the truth. Former psychology student Howard and her friends have clearly sat down and actively decided to take these particular ghosts for one last waltz. It's working a treat. A Guardian review salivated over the information that Howard lives "at the end of a dirt track". The Los Angeles Times praised their lack of "affectation, histrionics or irony", and The New York Times said much the same.
OK, I can sense your impatience, you already know this stuff. But are Alabama Shakes any good? Yes. They're a cracking band. When a song hits the breakdown and Howard skewers the silence with a top-of-the-octave scream, they're good enough, in fact, to make you feel temporarily silly for caring about any of the above. And the songs are undeniable. When Alabama Shakes' popularity spreads beyond the cognoscenti to the festival crowds, there will be many a drunken arm slung around many a drunken shoulder, bawling along with "Hang Loose". I just distrust the motives of their cheerleaders, and I worry about where they're trying to lead us.
Rizzle Kicks, with their lightweight pop-rap tunes and happy-go-lucky rhymes about girls and dancing and wanting to be famous, are something of a CBeebies option in a year when A$AP Rocky, Azealia Banks and Odd Future are on offer. Their selling point is their accessibility: with their non-stellar dress sense (one is in a hoody, the other in a shirt buttoned only at the collar) and their willingness to make fools of themselves by wearing a fan-thrown tiger hat or even a pink bra, Jordan "Rizzle" Stephens and Harley "Sylvester" Alexander-Sule come across as amiable boys next door. Which, performing in their home town of Brighton, they might well be.
These Brit School kids didn't get this far, though, without a lot of celebrity help. Olly Murs gave them a leg-up via his chart-topping "Heart Skips a Beat", their early videos somehow blagged guest appearances from James Corden and Ed Sheeran (whose abominable "You Need Me, I Don't Need You" they cover tonight), local beatmeister Norman Cook produced the chart-topping single "Mama do the Hump", and M.I.A. collaborator Ant Whiting produced most of Stereo Typical, their debut album.
Evidence of RK's own talents is debatable. A likeable lyric "Holding up stores with Lucozade bottles/I'm the one forcing you to break bad/ Whilst little goodie two shoes glue plane models" has to be set against the dreadfully laboured tobacco metaphor of "Miss Cigarette", and the instruction in "Mama do the Hump" to "flick your fag butts" will surely be a hindrance to cracking the States (though that's no bad thing).
"People say we're crap, people say we're sick," they admit on one track, "But I really hope that we are the latter." The truth, alas, lies somewhere in between.
The Great Escape Festival hits the Sussex seaside again. This year's highlights include Alabama Shakes, Maximo Park, Milagres, S.C.U.M. and Grimes, at various venues in Brighton (Thu, Fri, Sat). Meanwhile, former frightwigged garage-rock revivalists turned sonic voyagers The Horrors play a one-off hometown gig at Chinnerys, Southend (Wed).
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