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Alabama Shakes: Rehashing The Past Or Reinventing The Blues?

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So, what do you hear while listening to the winning, trash-soul sounds of this year's hottest
indie debut, "Boys & Girls" from Alabama Shakes? Not an ounce of affectation in lead-singer
Brittany Howard's riveting, aching appropriations of every big voice from Janis Joplin to Aretha
Franklin to Amy Winehouse. But is this just good old retro blues, soulfulness recycled with
a gusto you couldn't fake if you tried? Or is there an inventive edge to these 11 mostly
analog songs?

The stunning debut has scaled the charts here and abroad since its April 9th release. Howard
bemoans several broken hearts (all her own), lost lovers and lost friendships. She wonders
if someone up there just might be rooting for her since she made it through to 22; and the
endearing bewilderment with which she admits in one song "but I really don't know what I got
to say" only serves to remind us that the blues emerge from inarticulate pain and grief. You'll
follow this voice anywhere, like a siren song, even if it twists and breaks your heart by wrapping
it up in her own heartache.

In "Heartbreaker," a spry piano rolls us into a jeremiad against a lover who's left her crying
"why, why's" and calling out over a wailing gospel organ " I wanna die." With desperate
gravity, she sings, "Oh, I wanted to grow old with you/ You told me so," reminding us that we
always experience heartbreak, subjectively, as betrayal. Even in the frantic, funk-light drive
of "I Ain't the Same," Howard's pattering naiveté, as she vows, "I said I'd never grow old," soon
yields to the experience of loss that ages and changes each of us forever, while she croons like
someone with an old soul, with possible nod to Bessie Smith's "Young Woman's Blues" from
the 1920s.

Which brings us back to the question: Are the Shakes merely the latest among a cast of hip
new bands trending backward? According to Simon Reynolds's must-read Retromania (2011),
the fervor for the new characterizing pop culture and rock music at their best has given way
to a nostalgic haze in which even the young -- the latest generation of rockers, hip hoppers,
electronica wizards -- spend more time looking back than they do looking forward. Concert
promoters depend on short-lived summer tours featuring tried-and-true, long-retired, and often just plain tired musicians from the 60s, 70s, 80s, or early 90s, who hit the road to cash in on the nostalgia of fans, many of whom are too young to remember the past they find themselves collectively longing for.

Still, I'm unwilling to characterize the best of rock, soul, and blues as drowning in nostalgia.
What's called for, I think, is a distinction between rehashing and revising. You can go retro
by leaning back in time for all your fun, attempting to prove you can still get water from the
Stones. But you can also look back so as to look forward: searching with genuine retrospection for what's still to be mined, recycled, and re-visioned from the loosely canonical bins of pop
music.

Making no distinction between rehashing and revising the past -- say, between Adele and Amy
Winehouse -- makes little sense to me. For Reynolds, those two soulful voices are cut from
the same Motown mold. But with no disrespect to Adele (whose commercial success has been
immense), only one of the two is visionary in her re-visionings of the past. With her eclectic
take on wall-of-sound production, on the vocal stylings of Ronnie Specter, Aretha, and the
Supremes -- with a dash of Nina Simone mixed in for good measure -- Winehouse managed to
filter on 2007's "Back in Black" all her contrasting influences brilliantly; and her brash, clairvoyant, husky, often punked-up contralto so far outstrips lesser rivals as to make us wonder whether we ought even to speak of the glorious musical past and nostalgia in the same sentence.

So, you'll excuse me for not despairing of a contemporary era that has yielded timeless albums
from acts as diverse and as retro-visionary as The Libertines, The Arctic Monkeys, The Roots
and The White Stripes. And you can add Alabama Shakes to my list of groups who rather than
simply falling into line with the past force us to redraw the lines between the new and the old
as we've come to know them.

What's really at stake in a retro posture as reinvention? Well, have another listen to the U.K.'s best band of the aughts, The Libertines: the audacity of their loose-playing, shambling guitars; the raucous, first-take-in-the-garage style; the swooping, slurring, yet always lovely lilt of Pete Doherty's voice as he occupies some utopian space between a jazz riff and the trained virtuosity of a choirboy's soprano. "Now I'm reversing down the lonely street/ To a cheap hotel where I can meet the past/ And pay it off and keep it sweet." Sure, he's keeping the past sweetly reminiscent of The Clash or The Jam, but when The Libertines pull out all the stops, it's as if they're at Sun Studio on Memphis's Union Avenue in 1954, inventing rock 'n' roll all over again. And I'll fall for that form of retro every time.

R. Clifton Spargo is an author and critic who writes the HI/LO, a blog on the interplay between high and low culture, for The Huffington Post. Currently an Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he has taught creative writing at Yale University, Marquette University, and the University of Iowa and now teaches a first of its kind testimonial writing workshop on gender-based violence for The Voices and Faces Project. A regular contributor to the independent cultural weekly New City, he is the author or editor of several books on ethics, the Holocaust, and literature. His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Antioch Review, Glimmer Train, SOMA, Raritan, Commonweal, The Yale Review and The Chicago Tribune. For more, visit his website.