Brittany Howard Steps Beyond Alabama Shakes and Soars to New Heights on ‘Jamie’
Brittany Howard is best known as the frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, a band whose success can hardly be questioned, as there are scarcely any notable counterparts in their particular strain of music. Taking on R&B stylings with a wide lense, and appropriating bits of everything from Motown to ‘70s prog rock, the band immediately demanded attention. Now, Howard has embarked on a solo effort, “Jaime.” The album gets its name from Howard’s older sister, who taught her to play piano, write poetry, and tragically died from retinoblastoma, a cancer of the eye. Howard herself is subject to the same affliction, but has gotten by with only partial blindness in one eye. The title is meant as a nod to Howard’s primary source of inspiration. However, Howard has made it clear that this is an album about herself. The songs are unsparingly bold and direct in their autobiographical detail, and the album shows the visionary behind Alabama Shakes taking on a new free reign that amounts to an unprecedentedly impressive musical statement.
From the first few seconds of opener “History Repeats,” this record stands out distinctly as the sound of musicians letting loose, picking up on each other’s impulses, and effortlessly tapping into a hive mind. Howard exudes emotion and power in a way that only the most inspired singers do, and in a world full of over-processed and affected music, this record strikes like a beacon, likely to make you stop in your tracks and gawk in awe. This song brings things to a funky start with wah-wah guitars under layered tracks of Howard muttering, hollering, and doing everything in between. The refrain rings, “History repeats and we defeat ourselves / Come on everybody, one more time again.” With all its attributes, music on the “soul” side of the spectrum tends to be relatively lacking in irony, so it’s especially refreshing to hear this defeatist declaration atop the riot of funk, adding a slight element of humor to an emotionally-charged and weighty album.
“He Loves Me” begins with a pastor pontificating, “But we Christians ought not ever intentionally miss church,” before Howard goes on to offer a rebuttal, singing, “I don’t go to church anymore / I know he still loves me.” It’s something of a safe middle ground, with Howard honoring her Southern Christian heritage by even acknowledging the subject, but simultaneously insisting on her own take, showcasing a rebellion that is consistent with the spirit ever-present in her music. The song begins sluggish, then erupts into an impassioned act with Howard singing in a hushed howl, with especial abandon, spoken word bits interspersed with the preacher’s quotes.
A standout in an album without a single weak track comes in “Georgia.” It begins with heavy sluggish bass, sounding delightfully unwieldy, with a balance of grit and glide. Howard repeats, “I just want Georgia to notice me,” and her singing takes detours into delicate, scratchy whispers. She has described the song as a love song, from a child’s perspective, directed to an older girl. The sentiment could hardly be expressed more effectively, with the refrain repeated with a childlike innocence, and Howard’s voice sounding particularly androgynous at certain points. Organ plays a crucial role in this song, as in several others. In the final third of the song, when the organ comes in, all the gentle musings take off and beam into the stratosphere, and it’s a wild ride. Howard’s music owes much of its charm to the rich musical heritage that it has preserved and manages to churn out without any trace of throwback phoniness, and this is particularly apparent on “Stay High.” Her melismatic stylings echo the likes of Otis Redding, and capture the spirit of a bygone era in a way that few recent artists have, save perhaps Amy Winehouse, although this is clearly on a whole different level. There’s a thrilling, syncopated toy box melody, with messy, up-close breathing, a glass-shattering falsetto, and perfectly sloppy, splattering drums.
“Tomorrow” is minimalist soul at its finest, recalling the central feel of D’angelo’s “Voodoo” album. There’s a general jazzy essence, with vocals front and center, over crisp kicks and claps. Howard goes off on tangents and curves back to center gracefully in a way that seems grounded, yet on edge, with the perfect balance. There’s a madcap mess of shuffling hi hats and whimsical scattered phrases, then a cathartic release, with gospel choirs and all the works. Howard has described the song as having three distinct phases, The first involves procrastination in dealing with the troubles of tomorrow. The second confronts the anxieties that the present moment presents. Finally, the last bit prances into the future optimistically, having gained some composure through realization.
The minimalist thread is further explored on “Short and Sweet,” a stripped-down cut, with Howard singing to the seat of her pants, occasionally evoking Billie Holiday in her phrasings. There’s a portion in which her vocals build and soar to piercing heights, as the guitars, hardly audible before, strum freely in tandem with her, and then dissipate accordingly. Howard sings, “There are mountains between us / There is time between us,” with a strain in her voice that mirrors the sentiment of the lyrics, before shifting tone dramatically, and asking, “Oh, ain’t there something between us? / Something short and sweet,” with full Disney wide-eyed spirit. After all this meandering, there’s a brisk shifting of gears with “13th Century Metal.” In Howard’s own words, “This title is very literal: This song sounds like metal music but it also sounds like a Gregorian chant.” While this is perfectly accurate, the music taps into much more. At once, it has the feel of ‘60s protest music, with Howard’s impassioned, spoken word utterances reminiscent of Gil Scott Heron. Meanwhile, the band flow along with a combination of free jazz fluidity and rock ‘n’ roll edge in the same spirit of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.” Howard repeats, “Give it to love” over a distorted, buzzing racket that builds to an intense climax.
On “Baby,” Howard returns to the crisp, streamlined stylings of “Tomorrow.” In an album that surveys so much varied musical ground, one consistent feature is Howard’s unbridled emotion, and one of the most fascinating aspects is seeing how it takes different forms when the music beneath it changes shape. Here, the frenetic energy of the preceding track gives way to a restrained, but excited, playfully passionate display. Layered screams of the titular line, in countless different voices, make for a truly intense experience that reaches its apex upon a devilish shriek. There’s an instrumental bit with keys falling into a rhythm that’s mere madness, but somehow registerable. Howard and her band are seriously on another level.
“Goat Head” is an especially heavy song, in terms of subject matter. It starts with a tinkering rhythm that reminds the listener of how only bands from the south ever seem to get into grooves quite like this. As it turns out, the south is a central feature of this song, but in a much less favorable way than the rhythm that carries it. It’s about Howard’s experience growing up biracial in the deep south. The title refers to an incident in which someone slashed Howard’s father’s tires and actually left a goat’s head in the back of his car. Take a moment to register that. She goes on to contemplate, “I’m brown, I’m not black / But who said that? / See, I’m black, I’m not white… I’m one drop of three-fifths, right?” These are questions that need to be raised, as people incomprehensibly seem to not acknowledge the arbitrariness of our labels. After all, Barack Obama was exactly half black and half white, so you might as well have considered him a white president. At any rate, “Goat Head” is a chilling reminder of how severe of a cruel reality racism was at a certain place and time.
On “Presence,” Howard returns to the basic kick-and-clap equipment, but fills the space with fanciful harps, while she sings giddily about being smitten and reveling in the moment. There are bits of horn sections, with clipped, jagged funk, and plenty of “La-la-la” asides, making it very clear how high in the clouds Howard is, from pure infatuation. Finally, “Run To Me” comes out of nowhere, with the full ‘80s unabashed reverb treatment, matched with the associated vocal histrionics. The reverberating drums give an epic feel, with Howard’s gurgling, hissing, and soaring vocalizations demanding, “Run, run, run to me.” It zeroes in on a specific sentiment, and simultaneously pans out from the whole heated affair in a way that seals the album satisfyingly.
“Jamie” is an album that goes straight to the heart, and cuts through all of the nonsense in a sharp, incisive slice. You’re left reflecting upon the breadth and depth of American music of the last, say, seventy years, as they’ve been condensed and flashed before you in a way that no one would have expected. Brittany Howard is the real deal. And the musicians on display are the perfect match for her instincts. The songs address varied loaded subjects, tackling socio-political concerns, historical trajectories, gender roles, amorous infatuation, and fleeting states of mind. More importantly, whatever the subject matter, Howard presents it as if the thoughts have found their natural musical expression, unfiltered, uncalculated, and accordingly impactful.
“Jaime” is available Sept. 20 on Apple Music.