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“Americana,” that loosely defined and imprecise genre tag, isn’t normally associated with artistic adventurousness. The word conjures the very opposite — tradition, heritage, even conservatism. You can understand then why Brittany Howard would grow tired of being grouped under this umbrella.
As the magnetic and overpowering frontwoman of Alabama Shakes, one of the best and most popular bands to be classified as Americana in the 2010s, Howard has pushed against the tropes of so-called “roots” music with increasing force. When Alabama Shakes first entered the national consciousness with 2012’s Boys And Girls, they scanned as a solid blues-rock bar band with an extraordinary singer out front. The product of an interracial household, Howard grew up equally well-versed in commercial R&B and classic rock. A fan of both Purple Rain and Journey’s Greatest Hits, she applied that background to a vocal style with the elasticity and nuance of the former and the authority and swagger of the latter. Even when Boys And Girls stuck to a familiar Black Keys-like “retro ‘n’ riffs” template, the sheer power of Howard’s voice and personality set it apart from the sepia-toned pack.
But it wasn’t until 2015’s Sound + Color that Alabama Shakes — Howard, really — became truly great. Whereas Boys And Girls didn’t aim for much more than basic, no-frills, rock-band competence, Sound + Color represented a quantum leap forward, conjuring a mix of psychedelic hard-rock and paisley-patterned soul that sounded like OutKast covering Physical Graffiti. While Sound + Color benefitted from possibly the best production and engineering of any rock album this decade — playing it on even a “just decent” sound system feels like having your eardrums gently massaged with warm butter — the songwriting and arrangements were also strikingly unconventional, as unpredictable as Boys And Girls was formulaic. Howard, of course, led the way, eschewing the blues-belter affectations of the debut in favor of nimble vocal runs that veered from sultry to flat-out spine-tingling, evoking a nocturnal world in which lust and vitality commingle freely with fear and paranoia.
That alluring, claustrophobic atmosphere is retained on Howard’s solo debut, Jaime. After trying to make a follow-up to Sound + Color with the Shakes and experiencing a frustrating lack of progress, Howard finally decided to put the band on indefinite hiatus in 2017. Howard had already launched two niche-y side projects — the feisty punk band Thunderbitch, and the country-rock group Bermuda Triangle — but making a full-fledged solo LP feels like a true declaration of independence.
On paper, Jaime is a move straight out of Rock Singer 101 — band becomes successful, and the most recognizable member breaks off to capitalize on their success, with a record that could have been a band album. And, truth be told, Jaime doesn’t always contradict that cliche. The opening track, “History Repeats,” picks up where Sound + Color left off — it’s mind-twisting funk-rock with a deep groove (supplied by Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell, no less) and a choir of lush Howard vocal overdubs pushed to the front, setting a mood that’s both warm and sinister. The mood-shifting “Georgia” — a mash note to an out-of-reach crush inspired by the Los Angeles-based musician Georgia Anne Muldrow, and one of Jaime‘s best songs — is a dreamy Curtis Mayfield-esque jam that builds toward an overwhelming rock climax, with an enormous, “When The Levee Breaks”-sized backbeat.
You could imagine both tracks anchoring a third Alabama Shakes record. But ultimately, Jaime asserts itself definitively as a Brittany Howard album, in part by rendering any distinctions between her work and the band as meaningless. The Shakes are her band, after all, and a vehicle for her vision. But now, her vision can’t be accommodated by the band, so it’s time to work elsewhere.
Lyrically, the songs clearly come from Howard’s specific point of view, delving deep into the traumas of her past (most pointedly in the disturbing “Goat’s Head,” which recounts a hate crime perpetrated against her family) as well as explorations of her sexuality and political rage. But even more striking than Howard’s confessional lyrics is the musical evolution that Jaime represents. While some songs have a similar band aesthetic retained from Sound + Color, for the most part Howard has liberated herself once and for all from the conventions of her band, or any rock band, really.
If Howard can still be classified as Americana, she’s making the most experimental and forward-thinking music in the genre. Jaime is darker, weirder, groovier, and more psychedelic than anything Howard was previously put to tape. Parts of Jaime still rock in a relatively straightforward fashion, but there’s also heavy doses of funk, jazz, and hip-hop. (Two key members of her backing ensemble, keyboardist Robert Glasper and drummer Nate Smith, have distinguished themselves by moving freely between those musical worlds.)
At times it resembles the freaky and polarizing albums that Prince made in the mid-’80s after 1999 and Purple Rain threatened to turn him into a “normal” superstar, like Around the Way In A Day and Parade. Howard crafts full-on homages to that era of The Purple One with the wiggy space-age funkadelic soul of “Tomorrow” and the Saturday-night gospel of “He Loves Me,” in which the man upstairs forgives Howard for smoking blunts and drinking too much. Howard also plays it delicate, offering up the jazzy, stripped-back balladry of “Short and Sweet,” evoking Prince’s Joni-worshipping ballad “Sometimes It Snows In April.”
But the most thrilling moment on Jaime has to be the thunderous “13th Century Metal,” a cataclysmic eruption of jazz fusion and big-beat electronica over which Howard delivers a fiery sermon about standing up against the evils of modern life. “I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us,” she intones, “and who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear.” It’s hard to classify it strictly as rock, jazz, or R&B. But it sounds exactly like the fearsome roar that Howard has been building toward for years. May she keep reaching for even wilder, further-flung, and exciting exaltations.
Jaime is out Friday on ATO Records. Get it here.