JD McPherson + Alabama Shakes + That Old Old Sound : Best New Music 2012

by Weston Cutter

If you’re paying attention to music of late you’ve likely heard lots about the Alabama Shakes, whose debut album, Boys and Girls, dropped last week. If you’re really, really paying attention to music, you maybe caught a song called “You Ain’t Alone” which hit the net last year (maybe you, like me, got it from Aquarium Drunkard), and maybe you, like me, searched in vain for months to find more about this band called The Shakes (which is as shitty a name as possible far as Google goes, almost as bad as The Glands, maybe the greatest unknown band ever)—a band which seemingly had recorded just that one song, “You Ain’t Alone,” which song could well have been an outtake from some old Janis Joplin session you’d never heard of, or, at least, I never had.

The Shakes, of course, we now know, were hard to find because they’d changed to the Alabama Shakes, and if you decide not to pay attention to this band you’re missing maybe the year’s best album—certainly the year’s most exciting debut (or, at least, top 2). Boys and Girls, their 12-tracker, is lots of things: it’s certainly, first and foremost, a sort of old-school album, something that sounds timeless—or, maybe better, sounds ripped from an older time, something that could’ve been recorded reel-to-reel in 1971. I mean that both in terms of the sound of the recording and in terms of the songs themselves. By way of example, here’s a video of them performing their phenomenal “You Ain’t Alone”:

That’s Brittany Howard, the band’s frontwoman (and good god, what a frontwoman: is that not exactly what vulnerable ferocity looks like?). That patience in their playing and style—that ability to let a song bubble quietly along, the way they don’t rush to fill in and max out every sonic aspect of the song (you think it’s common to let just a bass line keep a song moving? Listen to old M Ward and listen to his latest: even folks who’ve been huge champions of understated musicality seem to’ve been lately lured into believing more is better, always and ever)—that’s among the glories manifestly availble on Boys and Girls, but there’s more to it. Here’s what’s been my listening life of late: I’ve had a playlist with the Alabama Shakes and JD McPherson’s debut albums on it, and both albums feature throw-back sounds, yes, but the thing that unites them far more crucially is how…innocent sounding the music is. This gets tricky.

Look, one of the things that music’s seemingly always been able to offer—and one of the things one can get almost nowhere other than music—is the way it’s overwhelming, both to listener and to performer. Find some transcendent video of a great band—Pearl Jam, whoever—and the thing that’s striking in ways that no other art can possibly strike is how much the musicians can get moved and undone by what they’re doing. Yes: writers and painters get moved by what they’re doing when they’re making their art, certainly, but we don’t perform: we create, in quiet and remove, then let the shit come to light later.

But so anyway: what I’m getting from the Alabama Shakes, and from JD McPherson (about whom more below), is that Boys and Girls is ultimately hugely innocent—and I don’t mean that as a criticism. They sound like four people who dig the shit out making music together, and the album sounds exactly like that, song after song: like celebrations, each track. I don’t want to dwell on what that says about the music business and scene that that’d be so rare as to be worth celebrating, but there it is: Boys and Girls by the Alabama Shakes sounds as pure and innocent and fun a record as any I can think of from the last decade. It’s put-it-on-and-do-yardwork music, and it’s have-three-beers-and-finish-the-night music, and it’s, for me, been every-minute music for the last good while. You’re missing more than you can imagine if you’re missing this.

And then there’s JD McPherson, whose Signs and Signifiers is now coming out in wide release though it has, apparently, been available for the last 1.5 years or more as a smaller release. You’re best off just digging what this album’s all about by way of the video for the single, “North Side Gal”:


The bulk of what’s written above applies to McPherson and his trio as well as it does to AS: this is innocent music, pure music. Let’s neither get all Alan Lomaxy, nor let’s pretend that innocence or purity are aspects which automatically lend music power or punch (who hasn’t seen earnest-as-fuck crapshows?). But, again, as with AS, there’s a directness and joy in what McPherson’s doing, or at least that’s what it sounds like to this listener. Here’s what you should maybe know as well: everything used to record and make Signs and Signifiers was made before 1970 (often well before). A move like that could, depending on the seen-it-all world-weariness of the listener, strike as a gimick or schtick—I wonder how I’d feel it, say, The Strokes were to try a stunt like that. I don’t know. I’d claim, though, that McPherson and his bandmates did not endeavor to make an album like Signs and Signifiers out of any avaristic, let’s-look-like-this intent. Who knows, maybe they did, but I doubt it: what it sounds like is they’re into this old-time rock+roll music (which, let’s be real clear: McPherson’s songs could be fucking outtakes from Ray Charles’s magic 1950’s years; I’m not kidding) and they’re trying to make the best old-time rock+roll album they can. Meaning it doesn’t remotely sound like they’re trying to appear any certain way, meaning they are—like the Alabama Shakes—about as rare as it gets in terms of modern bands and music: folks who seemingly, truly, don’t give a shit about coming off any certain way other than trying as hard as they can to get to the sound and idea they’re most moved by. If you think I’m crazy and that this is more common than I’m believing it to be, I’d simply ask: when was the last time you were surprised by music? We talk about Adele with such reverence for a reason, and we did about Amy Winehouse the same way for similar reasons, and we talk about Radiohead for similar reasons. All of these folks? I’d argue that they share an uncompromising, un-self-conscious drive to get to the music they’re most moved by. Holy hell do you owe it to yourself to listen, as do we all.