Brittany Howard review, Jaime: Alabama Shakes frontwoman grapples with racism and religion on debut solo record

Jaime is named after Howard’s sister, who taught her to play piano and died of cancer when she was eight years old, but the singer has said the album is ‘not about her’

Alexandra Pollard
Thursday 19 September 2019 16:05 BST

When Brittany Howard turned 30, she decided she needed to do something that scared her. So she gathered together Alabama Shakes – the band with whom she had won four Grammys, released two successful albums, and performed at the White House – and informed them that she would be going it alone. Her debut solo album, Jaime, is the result of that leap.

Jaime is named after Howard’s sister, who taught her to play piano and died of cancer when she was eight years old – but “the record is not about her”, she said in a recent interview. “It’s about me.” A platter of psychy soul, gospel and funk, with melodies that tap and jitter like Morse code or pour out like silky caramel, Jaime is about tragedy, sexuality, religion, racism and poverty – all things with which Howard is uncomfortably familiar.

The singer grew up in a trailer park in the American south, the daughter of a black father and a white mother. “When I first got made, guess I made these folks mad,” she sings, her voice creaking over a keyboard trill, on “Goat Head”. “See I know my colour see, but what I wanna know is, who slashed my dad’s tyres and put a goat head in the back?” It is a stark, specific vignette, an act of hate recalled with both casualness and obvious pain.

“Georgia” is excellent, a soulful paean to a childhood infatuation with an older girl. The song, like most first crushes, becomes increasingly pained as it goes on, the squelchy synths and drums building to something cacophonous. Howard listened to Brazilian artist Jorge Ben – “where there’s literally, like, 18 different things happening in the song” – while she was making the album, and it shows. “13th Century Metal” builds like an alarm, while “Baby” is scatty and scattered, like something off The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Sometimes, there is one instrument too many, but usually the components crash together well.

The album takes a deep, contemplative breath, though, on “Short and Sweet”, which is exactly what it promises, a Grace Jones-like ballad on which Howard’s voice takes precedent over inconspicuous guitar, and the background hisses like an old vinyl. On “He Loves Me”, she grapples with maintaining a relationship with God when she’s long since stopped going to church.

There’s no track on Jaime that is likely to make waves – not in the same way as some of the better-known Alabama Shakes tracks, such as “Hold On” or “This Feeling” (the latter of which was recently used to remarkable effect in the final scene of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag). But what lovely ripples it makes.

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