by Phil Scarisbrick
For fans of Alabama Shakes, the genre-bending evolution of their sound not only kept them on their toes, but also opened up new avenues of intrigue for them to delve into. As is always the case, reviewers tend to use genre-specific labels as shorthand for describing a band or artist. With Alabama Shakes though, any label has changed with each album. They’ve covered everything from blues to soul, rock to funk with various other ingredients thrown in for good measure. Front woman, Brittany Howard, was always at the heart of everything though with her powerfully spellbinding voice. Stepping out on her own for the first time, Howard has created an album that will tick all the boxes for her existing fans, and surely win her many more.
Jaime is named after her late sister, who tragically died after battling eye cancer at the painfully-young age of thirteen. This nod to the most tragic of events in Howard’s life is a key indicator of the soul-bearing nature of the record. The songs are deeply personal, as she grapples with issues of identity and family traumas, not necessarily finding answers or catharsis, but at least trying to none the less. The sonic backdrop to all this takes in elements from all three Shakes albums, with a backing band that play to every emotion expressed by Howard throughout. Nate Smith’s drumming in particular is outstanding, as his jazz style infuses the record with a toe-tapping jeopardy.
The religious awakening of He Loves Me sees Howard separate her faith from the church over a soulful croon, while the regression of Georgia sees her sing from the perspective of herself as a child and having feelings of infatuation for an older girl, without the understanding of knowing what it means to be gay. Tomorrow tackles anxiety both on a personal and global level, but is tinged with feelings of hopefulness over a slow-burning soul backing. Short and Sweet is an intimate take on the joy of a new relationship, and living for the moment without putting too much pressure on where it will all end up. The delicate picked guitar adds a minimal backing for this beautiful soul song.
Single, Stay High, sounds like a take on Sonny and Cher’s I Got You Babe via New Orleans jazz and gospel, and stands out as one of the best ear worms on the record. Goat Head is Howard’s attempt at trying to make sense of what it meant to be from America’s south. Mixing evocative images of green tomatoes and white cotton, while grappling with identity issues of being mixed race, she reflects on an incident where her black father’s car had its tyres slashed and a severed goat’s head left on it. Once again regressing to the perspective of herself as a child, the confused emotions expressed in the lyrics are as relevant today as they would have been when she was that child.
Jaime may well just be Howard’s attempt to take a fresh approach to making music before regrouping with her Alabama Shakes band mates. This record feels like so much more than a stop gap though. The way she exposes her inner conflicts is profoundly affecting. The music blends various styles that are perfectly attuned to the subjects that each song tackles, and are performed with a flair that makes the backing as engaging as the stunning vocals. Just like Adrianne Lencker’s abysskiss last year, stepping back from the ‘day job’ has allowed her to make something that is deeply personal and wonderful in equal measure.
Secret Meeting score: 85