I have a problem. How does one convince people that a band, despite an only all right-ish album, are one of the most exciting live acts around? This quandary has reared its bastarding head twice in as many weeks. First with Willis Earl Beal’s interesting, but ultimately sub-par avant garde, debut effort and latterly with the much-hyped, but also off the mark, Alabama Shakes LP.
On stage both of these acts work tirelessly to offer their respective audiences enthralling sets of vigour, emotion and rhythm. Beal is a Chicago bluesman with a story befitting of the scar he sports down the length of his stomach and Alabama Shakes, who can boast one of the best singers in the business, pedal a brand of deep south, blues rock. They have received glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic for their impeccable live shows and both acts, along with Cold Specks, seem destined to bring roots-inspired Black music back to a place at the top of the music feasting table. Sadly, the live efforts of Beal and Alabama Shakes may be in vain.
Alabama Shakes’s ‘Boys & Girls’ is a good album, but it is not great. It is not the album that those (me) who wrote hyperbole-laden live reviews wanted or expected – it’s too thought out, too produced; too clean. Even more confusing is the difference in the quality of the album version of, debut single, ‘Hold On’ and the version on the video (below). For one reason or another, the video version – a proper exercise in rocking out - is what we expected on the album but what we got was an altogether tamer affair.
Meanwhile, Willis Earl Beal has released what is, in effect, a three-year-old album. Why he, or XL, thought it a good idea to put an album out that captures an artist still very much in a developmental stage, and one that was recorded before Beal had refined his own, unique, sound is baffling. On stage, Beal is effortlessly captivating and to see a man so earnestly committed to his songs is a thing of beauty. Using nothing more than an old reel-to-reel tape player, a guitar and a toothpick Beal demands undivided attention and, for the best part, his demands are justifiably met. His voice, which can vary from a tender coo to a strong and masculine rasp, mournfully carries his intricate and, at times, caustic lyrics but this is all masked under some overly eager lo-fi production on ‘Acoustimatic Sorcery’. If we didn’t know better, we’d say it was a cynical ploy by XL to cash in on the American’s rambling troubadour tale.
If 2012 is to be the year music found its soul again, at least on record, Cold Specks AKA Al Spx will need to produce an album that will last the test of time because Beal’s certainly won’t and while, due to Brittany Howard’s heart-wrenching howls, Alabama Shakes’s won’t be forgotten; it is not destined to be a classic.