Alabama Shakes

I have a new favorite post-gig routine. I get home, put on soft pants, crash-land on the couch and open up my laptop to see if I can find a concert streaming somewhere. It started a while back with Bonnaroo/Coachella streams, but it’s getting easier to find streaming video on random Fridays, and I love it. There’s a specific type of satisfaction associated with playing music for people and then getting to relax while watching someone else do it. (It reminds me a little of those restaurants that open at midnight and serve people from other restaurants who are just finishing their shifts.)

The video above isn’t live, but it’s recent — “Gimme All Your Love” from Alabama Shakes’ April 10 Coachella performance.

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5×5, Part 5: Albums

5x5, Part 5 - Albums

(Click here for Part 1 – Songshere for Part 2 – Collaborations, here for Part 3 – Late Breakers, and here for Part 4: RVA Long Plays.)

Before I get started with my fifth and final list, I want to take this opportunity to say thanks to all you awesome people who visited You Hear That, left a comment, wrote a guest post, or shared a recommendation over the course of the past year. This here blog means a great deal to me, and whether we know each other in real life or in 1’s and 0’s, I’m tremendously thankful for all the support and feedback you’ve provided, and I’d hug every single one of you if it were physically possible and/or in keeping with your particular feelings about boundaries and personal space and stuff.

It’s getting a little misty up in here, so let’s get on with the matter at hand — the 5 albums that rocked my socks off in 2012.

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Alabama Shakes

Y’all ever watch that show Diary on MTV back in the day? You remember, the one where they’d follow around a celebrity for a few glamorous days, and the diarist would start each episode by saying, “You think you know… but you have no idea.” Now that’s a catch phrase! It still runs through my head every once in a while. Probably because I was always tickled by how this intimidating phrase sounded in the mouths of less-intimidating subjects. Listen to the beginning of Jennifer Love Hewitt’s episode. That shit cracks me up.

Now watch this interview and tell me Alabama Shakes frontwoman Brittany Howard wouldn’t have knocked that line out of the park. I’m almost tempted to start a letter writing campaign to get MTV to revive the series… but thankfully I don’t have to. I heard Howard deliver the Diary catch phrase just a few days ago. Well, not those words exactly, but Friday’s Alabama Shakes show on Brown’s Island in Richmond made one thing abundantly clear: I thought I knew Alabama Shakes, but I had no idea.

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A Physical Playlist

The best music conversations are the ones that never really end. They live on in the reminders you enter into your phone’s notes application — a band name you don’t want to forget or the title of a documentary that needs to be added to your Netflix queue. They pick back up thanks to the follow-up emails, tweets and texts in which the recommendee shares a reaction with the recommender, or the recommender finally remembers the album name that a few too many beers spirited away. They leave traces, like the stack of records that flew out of the crate because they demanded to be played (you can only talk for so long about how Exile on Main St. was recorded before you’re morally obligated to put it on).

Mrs. You Hear That and I hosted some friends from out of town over the long holiday weekend (the same friends who clued me into Moon Hooch a little while back), and our many music conversations — exchanges about Exile, the George Harrison documentary Living in the Material World, Jack White’s Blunderbuss and the mention of King Sunny Adé in Pitchfork’s vicious Body Faucet review — are still bouncing around the front of my brain, just as surely as the above-pictured records are still leaning against the side of my TV stand.

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YHT Top 10 Albums of 2011, Part 2

(click here if you missed Part 1)

Welcome to Part 2 of YHT’s Top 10 Albums of 2011, also known (as of this very moment) as the High Five! Before continuing, I highly recommend high-fiving the first person you can find, or if no one’s around, simply accept the internet high five above. Yay! OK, let’s finish 2011 off in style…

5. James Blake — James BlakeJames Blake

Dubstep not your cup of tea? Mine neither! But so much of what James Blake does well has nothing to do with wobbly bass or sub-bass or wobbly sub-bass. Take his minimalism, for example. A track like “Lindesfarne” builds so much tension via empty sonic space that by the time the track is in full-swing, it feels like your heart is going to explode, even though his version of “full-swing” is still relatively sparse. He’s also capable of making songs feel emotional, regardless of what’s going on lyrically. In some ways, James Blake is like the musical equivalent of the plastic bag from American Beauty — an object of creation that seems simple on the surface, but as you continue to fill it with your own emotions its meaning becomes almost overwhelming. Then, like I said, your heart explodes. Boom. Just like that. Listen to “Lindesfarne” below, read more here and here, and buy here.

James Blake — “Lindesfarne

4. Fleet Foxes — Helplessness BluesHelplessness Blues

I don’t know if I would have made it through this past year without Helplessness Blues. 2011 was a time of exciting change for me (this blog being one big development), and the Fleet Foxes’ latest effort resonated deeply, touching heavily on themes of transformation and self-determination. I fell in love with the album’s exhilarating title track, which manipulates momentum so brilliantly, but our affair was sidetracked abruptly when I heard “Someone You’d Admire,” a hymn-like song with lyrics that offer both an admission of personal defeat and a reaffirmation of the ongoing inner-struggles that push us to get out of bed in the morning and keep fighting. Wow. This blurb certainly got serious. Here’s a video of a monkey riding a dog! Better? Great! See what I mean about “Someone You’d Admire” below, read more here, and buy here.

Fleet Foxes — “Someone You’d Admire


Wait for it…



Alright, now that that guy is gone we can have a rational conversation about Bon Iver, one of the most ambitious albums I’ve heard in a long time. In my mind, making this album was an act of extreme musical courage. It would have been easy for Justin Vernon to dust off the For Emma, Forever Ago recipe and make another batch of the same bittersweet-yet-delicious confections, but he went so much further with his second full-length, thickening the batter with diverse instrumentation and bold stylistic leaps. Out of the oven came songs that feel radically different, even though they bear the same yearning falsetto that so many people have grown to love since 2008. So why do I have it ranked at number #3? Um… I dunno it just kinda felt like the right place. Listen to “Holocene” below, read more here, here and here, and buy here.

Bon Iver — “Holocene

2. Alabama Shakes — Alabama Shakes EPAlabama Shakes EP

Why is this one’s album art smaller? Is it because it’s just an EP, and it’s size is being represented in correlation with its running length? Actually no. For some mysterious reason I couldn’t resize the image. Oops. Besides, if I had to represent how impactful this album has been, I would need a shit-ton more pixels. Probably more pixels than any other album on this list. The Alabama Shakes have landed on so many year-end “Best New Artist” lists with just these four soulful rock songs and some YouTube videos, making this album the pound-for-pound, hardest-hitting release of the year. I’m still recovering from being slugged by their early-December show at the Jefferson in Charlottesville, VA, and I’m beside myself with anticipation for the next time they’re anywhere near Richmond. Listen below to “You Ain’t Alone,” which is just a scary-good song in my opinion, read more here and here, and buy here.

Alabama Shakes — “You Ain’t Alone

1. Gillian Welch — The Harrow & The HarvestThe Harrow and the Harvest

The top spot goes to the album I played more times from start to finish than any other this year. When The Harrow & the Harvest came out, a big deal was made about how long it had been in the making — 8 years had passed since Welch’s last release — but this is no Chinese Democracy. Many of these tracks were captured on the first take, giving the album a natural, lighting-in-a-bottle feel that stands in stark contrast to their remarkable quality. I read that she and David Rawlings started a few recording projects in the years between this album and her last, but they abandoned each one because they weren’t convinced that the material up to snuff. These songs sure as hell are, and though nothing’s perfect, “Hard Times” is as close to a perfect song as I heard in 2011, offering a pure, heart-wrenching, two-by-two pairing of verse and chorus, guitar and banjo, her voice and his. Take a listen below, read more here, and buy here.

Gillian Welch — “Hard Times

Before you go, I just wanted to say thank you so much for reading You Hear That in 2011. It means so much to me that you’re reading this here blog, and I’m beyond excited for what’s in store in the future. I hope you have a wonderful New Year’s Eve, and that your 2012 is 1000% better than the Mayans said it would be. Now let’s all go get hammered, call cabs and get home safe and sound!

Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes, Part 2
(Click here for Part 1)

Remember the Andre Agassi “Image is everything” commercials? You heard about the whole wig thing, right? Isn’t it wild that he would do a commercial about image being essential when, any moment, a poorly placed opposing serve could have dislodged the image he’d marketed so lucratively? It’s either the most or least ironic thing that’s ever happened, but either way it’s definitely sad. Sadder is the fact that he lost the French Open final that year because he was concerned that his locks would come loose. He said of that match, “During the warming-up training before play I prayed. Not for victory, but that my hairpiece would not fall off.” It takes a big man to admit this kinda thing, especially when he totally got away with it, and it teaches a powerful lesson: Fake stuff is distracting. When you’re thinking about what people are thinking about you it’s difficult to reach the state of mindlessness in which athletes (POORLY VEILED PREMISE ALERT) and musicians really thrive. Authenticity, on the other hand, offers freedom. It’s an invitation to dive deeper. Authenticity is the red pill from The Matrix. And that’s exactly what the Alabama Shakes were dispensing this past Tuesday at the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA (Note to the VA law enforcement community: At no point did an Alabama Shakes band member actually dispense pharmaceutical drugs or smuggle audience members into a post-apocalyptic computer world). After a fantastic set from Richmond’s Black Girls, the Shakes took the stage for the very first time in the Old Dominion, or “Virginny” as frontwoman Brittany Howard put it, and set about showing us the genuine joy that can be found in live performance when you let go, lose yourself (apologies to Mr. Mathers) and pour out your heart and soul  — with an emphasis on the “soul.” I wrote yesterday about how the Alabama Shakes shouldn’t be called “soul revivalists” because it feels more like they’re creating than recreating, but you could hear the genre’s influence throughout their show. You could also hear healthy doses of rockabilly, blues, R&B and a ton of rock n roll. In truth, more than anything else, it really did feel like a rock show, with Howard’s emotional energy leading the way. Howard’s voice was packed full of expression and soulfulness, but there’s a whole other gear there (soul overdrive?) that she used to soar over blasting choruses full of ringing cymbals and electric guitars being strummed mercilessly. Along with Howard’s voice, I was particularly struck by the relationship between these two guitars, a bright-sounding hollow body Epiphone plucked by the co-lead guitarist and backup singer and a cool-sounding SG piloted by Howard herself. The tones of the two instruments couldn’t have been more complementary, and the same was true for the players, who traded rhythm and lead roles — the Epiphone providing driving riffs and lead flourishes and Howard’s SG adding rhythmic punctuation before tearing through frenzied solos that channeled the same emotion her voice conveyed so powerfully all night long. To see that kind of passion on display as she’s singing about wearing your heart out on your sleeve in a song like “You Ain’t Alone” represents a perfect marriage of message and messenger, and that authenticity made it easy for me to lose myself in the Alabama Shakes on Tuesday night. If you have the chance to see them, do not pass go, do not collect $200, just GO. Until then, you can check out the video above of “You Ain’t Alone,” listen to the studio version below, and pick up their EP here.

The Alabama Shakes — “You Ain’t Alone

Alabama Shakes

Alabama Shakes EP

Alabama Shakes, Part 1
(Editor’s note: I’m so excited about last night’s Alabama Shakes show that I’m splitting my reaction up into two parts, one offering a macro view of the experience, and one that gives a little more detail. Hope you enjoy!)

“Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about a science book
Don’t know much about the french I took
But I do know that I love you”
— Sam Cooke

Over the course of 28 years, I’ve become an expert at certain things. Choosing which tunnel to use when traveling from Richmond to Norfolk is one. Choosing non-mealy apples at the grocery store is another. And I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I consider myself the Michael Jordan of choosing the wrong checkout lane at Costco. Soul music, however, is not one of my (apologies to John Hodgman) areas of expertise. Soul is such an influential, historically rich and culturally significant force that I’ve always approached it with a sense of cautious reverence. And while I’m somewhat familiar with greats like Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Sam Cooke and Mavis Staples, it’s always seemed like a broader understanding of the genre’s history and icons is just too steep a hill to climb, and that I’m destined to remain on the outside looking in. Lately though, a number of bands that have caught my attention are making it more and more difficult to stay on the soul music sidelines. Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing one of these bands in person, a group called Alabama Shakes. I’d been hearing this 5-piece outfit’s name everywhere, often lumped in with the present wave of so-called soul revivalists, so I came to the Jefferson Theater in Charlottesville, VA prepared to find out firsthand where they stood within this movement. But as they worked their way through a powerful, confident and wildly entertaining set, it became clear that they weren’t reviving anything. What I saw felt like an authentic act of creation, not one of imitation or recreation. It felt like something totally new. Maybe I’m inclined to think this way because I lack the baseline of knowledge to make proper comparisons, but to say that frontwoman-extraoridnairre Brittany Howard has pipes like Aretha, or a 5th gear like Janis Joplin, or moo-oo-oo-OO-OO-ooves like Jagger (sorry, I really tried to stop myself from typing that) would, as accurate and complimentary as those comparisons might be, situate Alabama Shakes in the past, which is not where they belong. Sure, you can call them neo-soul, or something like that, but it really doesn’t matter, because you don’t need to be a soul savant, or an expert in musical taxonomy, to enjoy Alabama Shakes. And the proof was standing all around me last night. The crowd was as diverse as I’ve seen — black, white, young, old, hip, unhip — and while that could be a side effect of being relatively new and not having been pigeonholed yet, I’d like to think it’s because there’s so much to enjoy in their music that almost everyone can connect with it. See what I mean by listening below to “Hold On,” the first track off their eponymous EP, which you can snag here.

Alabama Shakes — “Hold On