The first time we heard Brittany Howard — the singer/guitarist of Alabama Shakes, who just released her debut solo record, Jaime — she was urging herself, and, by extension, us, to “hold on.” The band was instantly branded roots-rock revivalists, and there was truth to it, but it was obvious from Howard’s raw, passionate vocals, the way she called herself out to buoy herself up — “Come on, Brittany!” — that her pain was tempered with cockeyed optimism, and that her sturdy quartet was the greatest bar band in the world and maybe more.
Jaime, named for her sister who died of retinoblastoma at 13, isn’t the reset most would expect from the frontperson of a successful band stepping out on their own but a continuation of the growth Alabama Shakes showed on their sophomore release Sound & Color. This solo juncture is personal.
“Everything needed to be centered around me: the vision, the music, the arrangements, the sounds,” she has said. “Not in a selfish way, but in a completely-taking-your-power-and-owning-it way. It is strange being in the center, but I’m getting used to it.”
It’s crazy to think that this force-of-nature live performer is an introvert. But the subject matter of Jaime, which veers from systemic racism to religious hypocrisy, was too close to home to keep Howard in her comfortable shell.
Take “Goat Head,” a soulful slow jam about a family incident that left a mark on this mixed-race child when local rednecks threw a decapitated goat head in the back of her father’s car. “It’s a complicated song to perform,” she has said. “A lot of people, especially of the older Caucasian type, don’t seem to like that song very much, as soon as I say the line about, ‘All my heroes are black, why does God have blue eyes?’ They don’t have any reference for what I’m talking about.”
Then there’s the girl-crushing “Georgia,” a first for Howard, who recently married her wife (and Bermuda Triangle bandmate) Jesse Lafser. “You know how, in movies and shit, there’s always like that little boy who has a crush on his older sister’s friends? That’s kind of what I was going for with that song, except it’s this little girl who has a crush on an older girl. It’s so innocent. I’ve never heard a song like that, and I was really excited to write it.”
The standouts, however, may be “He Loves Me,” about the spiritual relationship between a person who smokes blunts, drinks too much, and loves the “unacceptable” person; the rolling jam of “Stay High” (both with love and with weed); and the funky “13th Century Metal,” a seminar for peace, love and acceptance that should be required listening for bigots everywhere.
I sincerely hope that Brittany Howard keeps up with all her projects, especially Alabama Shakes, who make rock music that’s both old-fashioned and contemporary. And I expect that her solo foray will be just as successful and sustainable. In whatever form, she’s one of the best that we’ve got: the bridge from a dark, thorny past to a difficult, yet still hopeful, future.