April Music Review – The Shins, Alabama Shakes and Michael Kiwanuka

The rapid rise of the Alabama Shakes has led to a lot of pontificating about musical authenticity. A band of relative youngsters, some still in their early 20s, who until recently were a bar room blues-rock covers band. They have a liking for using old recording equipment and instruments, and sound like they could be from any year since around 1966. Gimmick or the real thing? Listen to their debut album, Boys and Girls, out now, and decide.

Well, I’m not sure it matters. I’m at an age now where 99.9% of the music I hear immediately reminds me of something else. So, given the influences at work with the Alabama Shakes include Led Zeppelin, the White Stripes, Janis Joplin, CCR, Kings of Leon (when they were good) ... well, that’s not a bad list to be working from! I also like that they look like the kids in class who no-one else would play with, and the lead singer, the superb Brittany Howard, is resolutely non-glam.

Although the vocals are great, the real test is still, as always, the song writing. And that stands up pretty well, with tracks that are somewhat derivative, sounding comfortably retro-familiar – but have just about enough originality to engage interest. It’ll appeal to Adele fans who are ready for something a little harder edged on the one hand, and those of us missing the White Stripes and Kings of Leon on the other.  It’s another good (but not great) album for me – 8/10

Michael Kiwanuka was in lots of those “ones to watch in 2012” polls, including winning the BBC Sound of 2012,  which I’m afraid I’ve started taking as a BAD SIGN of an over-hyped artists (e.g. Ellie Goulding.) So I didn’t rush to hear his album which came out a couple of months ago. But that’s my loss, as Home Again is another impressive debut.

While he can certainly write a catchy tune, and he’s got a lovely, warm soulful voice, there are touches of jazz and Van Morrison (circa Astral Weeks period) in there, which takes it away from the pure pop album I’d expected. The first track, Tell Me a Tale, is typical in that sense, with a lovely and commercial chorus but also some “jazz flute” and a shuffling drum pattern in the verse, then a pretty wild sax solo to finish... it all makes it a very rewarding listen.

Other tracks are softer and more reflective – like Ben Howard (whose 2011 album is still growing and growing in my estimation), he appears to be channeling John Martyn and even Nick Drake at times. But as the album goes on, he slips more frequently into slightly bland Radio 2 territory (e.g. I’ll Get Along)- too consciously chasing the “male Adele” tag I wonder? But an enjoyable and promising debut. 7/10

The Shins are one of the most critically acclaimed “indie” bands of the last decade. But that’s thoughtful US indie rather than the often more basic UK model of course! Port of Morrow is perhaps a little more straightforwardly commercial than their previous work, with a tuneful pop-rock vibe. It’s very much James Mercer’s band, and indeed this time round he’s got an entirely different bunch of musicians compared to the excellent last album (2007’s Wincing the Night Away).  At first listen it is very enjoyable, but perhaps without some of the attractive quirkiness of that last work – it’s a bit more mainstream AOR in places. (Fall of ‘82 sounds remarkably like Steve Miller’s  Life’s Been Good, not that that’s a bad thing).

But if you like intelligent rock that’s easy to listen to, but repays closer attention and will I suspect sound better with familiarity, this is well worth buying. Is it as good as their previous work? I’m not sure yet. 7.5/10 at the moment, but it may grow into an 8, I suspect. Interesting video, too.

The Shins - "Simple Song" from DANIELS on Vimeo.

Voices (2)

  1. Alan Barclay-Devine:

    Peter

    I made the mistake of buying the Michael Kiwanuka album based on the one track that was hyped everywhere and, unfortunately, I think thats all I got, one track. None of the others do anything at all for me. The Shins album works for me in the car where it doesn’t interfere too much with my concentration.

  2. Dom O'Riley:

    Personally I think its the hype thats created Alabama Shakes..they are a fine bar band and may well get better but time will tell..
    If we do look at real talent thats proved and still relatively young I would check out 2 UK acts..St Jude http://www.saintjudemusic.com or the Union http://www.theuniononline.com
    who both show talent and maturity in the songwriting..and its St Georges Day so hurrah for British Bands!!

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