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Brittany Howard’s Autobiographical Masterpiece

September 20th, as Summer came to an end, rock-based, neo-soul group Alabama Shakes’ lead singer and songwriter, Brittany Howard, released her solo debut with a brilliant LP, Jaime—bringing us that cool, Autumn breeze. Encompassing the audacity of Curtis Mayfield, the humor of P-Funk, and experimental production techniques reminiscent of post-rock, the most powerful element of Howard’s revealing work become her lyrics. With a voice that can be loud but comforting, or soft while intense, her self-reflective messages ranging from sexual awakenings to acceptance are indisputable.

Parting ways from the funk-infused, ‘roots-rock’ unit in 2018, the songwriter allegedly found herself on a “voyage of self-discovery,” according to Pitchfork’s Sheldon Pearce. While her LP remains true to the gritty, alternative aura of the Shakes—likely lead by Howard herself, the album shows no restraint with experimenting. She’s in full control here.

Not only does her solo work exceed the boundaries of personal content, Howard’s work is fearlessly political—as heard in varying stanzas and talking segments throughout the music. Lyrically, her soul-searching motives almost become indicative of Roger Waters—former bassist and lead songwriter of Pink Floyd. Water’s reincarnation of Pink Floyd’s legendary 1979 LP The Wall combines self-reflection with unforgiving, political content. While Howard sings about herself, her album covers so much more. Jaime, which I thought only meant “I love” in French, was actually her late sister’s name; Jaime died when she was 13—a compelling double entendre.

Already bouncing between sexualities, Howard, born to a black father and white mother, grew up in Alabama, in a city home to the former Grand Wizard of the Klan.

This woman’s got a story to tell.

Working with R&B fusion pioneers like jazz pianist, Robert Glasper and drummer, Nate Smith, Howard’s songs, each pleasantly different from one another, play out nicely beside one another to form one powerful unit; no song is written with money in mind.

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” thematically dictates “History Repeats,” the albums funky opener. Established after a drumroll crescendo, Nate Smith’s upfront, booming kick drum creates an infectious groove. Proceeded by Howard’s signature dry, quirky guitar lines and dominant seventh chords, the singer begins a melody containing an uncanny resemblance to P-Funk favorites. Forming a style that combines singing with no-nonsense lecturing, Howard creates a call and response with her own overdubs in a contagiously rhythmic fashion. Shakes’ bassist, Zac Cockrell, clings to Smith’s groove gradually as the song builds momentum. Cockrell’s warm, Fender Precision bass evokes a thumping style reminiscent of Bootsy Collins—his days with James Brown in particular.

Cockrell’s bass translates nicely into the album’s second track, “He Loves Me,” gradually increasing dynamics as Howard’s singing becomes more abrasive. Beginning with a meaty, demanding drum groove, Howard introduces the sweetness of her guitar alongside a vocal melody that sounds a little like Paul McCartney’s “Jet”—check this out when you get a chance. As she does a lot throughout the album, Howard masters this use of space that lures listeners in at first, slamming them with a powerful chorus afterwards. The beauty of this song comes from its imperfections, sort of like the way Beatles’ songs do. Intentional or not, the gritty guitar and bass almost highlight this affable vulnerability felt throughout the album.

Track 3, “Georgia,” encompasses Howard’s usual antics: space, airiness, dynamics, Rhodes, crunchy bass, and beauty. The charmingly repetitive chorus presents strong modern pop appeal, without getting annoying. An organ-lead breakdown brings back to her habitual psychedelia.

“Stay High,” easily the LP’s most millennial track, features what sounds like a closely-mic’d toy xylophone. Normally, one should find this disappointing with an abundance of Pinterest-flavored TV ads, but it ends up sounding indicative of a piano. Close call, Brittany. The most important takeaway here is the songwriting; the strength of the chorus alone reaches a ‘Marvin Gaye level’ of perfection, especially with that 60’s-esque 6/8 rhythm. If it weren’t so experimental, you’d probably hear a track like this on AM radio back in the day.

Track 5, “Tomorrow,” becomes less playful, with Glasper’s complex jazz harmonies as demonstrated by his cooling, water-like Fender Rhodes playing—sheer contrast from a single-note, toy xylophone. This song in particular becomes peculiarly reminiscent of the Robert Glasper Experiment, acquiring only slightly more structure. Howard enters Thundercat territory in the middle of this more experimental number; interjecting voice-infused synthetics atop Glasper’s harmonies. Howard’s vocals truly made this sound like a dream, staying true to the uneasy nature of ‘dreaming’ in the first place. After that, the singer carries out the rest of the tune by resorting back to her call-and-response trick alongside some synths, but this time, she’s not really messing around. Taking on a stream of consciousness approach to her lyrics, Howard bites back with this notion that “tomorrow” will be different; as the singer said herself, via Apple Music, “I’m not feeling great about things, but I’ll deal with them eventually […] Now it’s tomorrow, what do I want?”

“Short and Sweet,” transitions the listeners from a hot, fever dream, to an oasis. The minimal track solely features one of the most honest, endearing combinations that once ruled the pop music industry: the artist and her guitar. “Short and Sweet,” includes no band, even with this killer line-up Howard developed. The listener should inquire the singer’s motives here. She continually mentions, “something between us,” and how “it feels good to dream at all.” On a personal level, the song evokes a sense of loneliness. This track catches the songwriter in the act; singing amongst herself, dreaming of things that may never be, with someone she may never find. The spacing between verses creates an impressionistic aura around Howards solo electric guitar, reminding one a lot of Jeff Buckley. One might even call it an homage to the late guitarist.

Track 7, “13th Century Metal,” becomes the ‘Brittany Howard Political Hour.’ It sounds like one of those experimental theme intros before an NPR talk show. The whole song features a talking segment—a speech rather—over Smith’s pounding grooves underneath Glasper’s synthy, improvisational keyboard inventions. While listeners seeking out melody and evocative chord progressions may steer clear of this track—it doesn’t mean they should. Howard sums up all the political messages present throughout her album. “We are all brothers and sisters,” she repeats. The singer began drafting this emotional, ‘stream of consciousness’ staple upon the death of Prince, and President Trump’s victory in the 2016 election.

“Baby,” the album’s eighth track, alludes to Glasper’s 2012 album, Black Radio, with Howard opening the song to a mic check the way an FM deejay would. Once again, Smith and Cockrell are locked in, but this time, the band infuses a Purdie Shuffle with a J Dilla groove, creating this ‘semi-swing.’ The singer gives us her bluesy guitar whines once more atop a ringing piano throughout the rest of this brief track.

After this, “Goat Head” moves along steadily with a straightforward, trap-like groove accompanying a synthesizer loop—bass free. About a minute in, Glasper gives listeners a harmonic breakdown, allowing Howard to come in and tell her story. The singer gets blatantly personal in telling the listeners about a deep-South bigot slashing her father’s tires and leaving a severed goat head in the back seat. Howard illustrates how inherently political her upbringing was.

The harp-driven, “Presence,” introduces more spontaneous guitar work on Howard’s part and more vocal experimentation. Another bass-free track, the staple of this number become the spacey, disjunct guitar lines accompanying the singer’s marijuana-infused feelings towards her current romantic partner. Personally, I wouldn’t consider it her strongest track, but if you want to empathize with smoking weed—go for it.

The album finishes up with “Run to Me,” a reverberant, synth-heavy ballad that drops you off into another world. Being impeccably retro, these atmospheric synths would fit nicely in the end credits of Stranger Things—11 tracks. Howard’s voice parts ways with the audience and heads for the comets, making the eleventh track a musical foil to the album’s funky, ‘down to earth’ opener. Reminiscent of David Bowie’s late 70’s Berlin trilogy, co- produced by Brian Eno, 1977’s Heroes comes to  mind. Not only does the production resemble Eno’s work, the vocals practically emulate the late performer. With no political connotations, Howard reaches a point where she only wants to relieve her sense of loneliness, telling someone of great significance to run to her. “It’s not funny being free and wild; there’s no joy all on your own; there’s no weapon against this loneliness.” 

Rating: 9/10

Review By: Charlie Krause