When Alabama Shakes arrived in 2012, doing the old/new thing of mixing rock and soul but with a kind of garage-y dirtiness, Brittany Howard’s band felt energised within constraints of the form. She had grittiness and soulfulness; they had punch and swing; and the independently recorded debut, Boys & Girls, was fresh and loaded with tunes.
You couldn’t tell if this band had a future but it felt very present, and that was exciting.
By their second album, in keeping with a title that shifted the emphasis from the people to the tone, the form had taken more control and Sound & Colour was neater and cleaner, rockier and less soul-driven - and not surprisingly did extremely well with both sales and Grammys where putting the bland into blandishments is a habit.
This was a band with a future but one disconnected from a past, and that left me indifferent.
In a most unlikely outcome, Jaime, Howard’s first solo album, sheds not just those constraints of form but also those of imagination. It is considerably more personal on things that matter: sexuality, race, politics lace these songs in equal measure with emotional openness. And it is considerably more varied in things that count: funkiness, sonic dares, soulfulness, intensity.
Maybe that can in part be put down to the twin poles of inspiration - in songwriting, vocals and attitude - Nina Simone and Prince.
In songs such as Short And Sweet (almost delicate in its voice and guitar form, but from a sturdy base of clear-eyed romance), Stay High (taking gospel into a kind of torch song that tips into ‘70s soul), and Tomorrow (spiritual jazz filtered through some unexpected early ‘90s daisy chain hip hop), Howard channels Simone with an appropriate mix of toughness and grace.
That combination is emphasised in Goat Head where the brute force of racism – physically as well as verbally: “Cause mama is white/And daddy is black/When I first got made/Guess I made these folks mad … Who slashed my dad's tires and put a goat head in the back?/I guess I wasn't s'posed to know that, too bad” - is explored over a base of electric piano and basic beat which resolves downwards rather than upwards.
The other side of the album can be heard in the winding power soul and religious urge of He Loves Me, the heavy tread ‘80s synths and dramatic tension of the vocals in Run To Me, the busy, almost cacophonous melange of psychedelia, funk, protest and trippy rock of 13th Century Metal, and the vocal play and neo-doo wop of Baby, all of which bear the stamp of Prince Rogers Nelson.
But maybe it’s best seen in Georgia, where Howard takes a lighthearted wish to be noticed by record producer Georgia Anne Muldrow and, with a sense of the purple one’s taste for building from small to grand theatricality, takes into a semi-autobiographical tale of a young girl wanting to be seen and loved by an older one, culminating in a question Prince himself might once have asked: “Is it unnatural?/Georgia, is it cool?/I wanna tell you that I love you.”
The middle ground between Simone and Prince might well be the neo-soul moves of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo, and on Jaime (named after Howard’s older sister who died when Brittany was eight) the mid-tempo groove and floral glissandos of Presence and the choppier guitars and sexily preaching parts of a snake-hipped History Repeats, confirms that bridge.
A bridge, not coincidentally, between the higher-minded and the earthy as much as the jazz club and the funk room. Or between a past and a future, feeling very now.