I first became aware of American Brittany Howard with hearing of the band she fronts - Alabama Shakes - and their debut album "Boys & Girls" released in 2012. This though, is her first effort under her own name and to my mind, is an interesting album from an interesting musician, and perhaps is what Alabama Shakes would have gone on to produce after the 2015, "Sound & Color" LP, had she not decided to go solo, at least for now, and make her own way, with her own songs and style.
On initial listening I thought, "Wow, this is a bit experimental". Further play-throughs have changed my opinion away from using "experimental" to describe it, and now although classifying the tunes individually and the album as a whole, it is still quite difficult to pin down, I'm led to calling it "interesting" but no less enjoyable whatever epithet I use.
I'll say again, trying to classify the tunes on this album is not really possible. The music touches many bases and varies from Soul/R&B, blues, jazz & jazz-funk, rock, electronica, and psychedelia, all in equal measure. It is a massive progression (though possibly logical) from the music she first became known for in the early days of fronting Alabama Shakes. It's perhaps 'Americana' writ large with musical fonts of all styles.
I hear echoes of Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Prince, Nina Simone, Earth Wind & Fire, and others…all steeped in the backbeat of Ms Howard's Southern (blues-rock) roots.
It is also a deeply personal album in which Ms Howard reflects on her heritage, her politics, her sexuality, and other beliefs and influences on her life and upbringing that have bought her to where she is now - the title of the album itself ("Jaime") is a shout-out to her elder sister who died young, but the album is not about Jaime, it's about Brittany, and what has bought her to who she has become.
Songs stretch from the mournful ballad of "Georgia", a lament to the love for another girl whilst at school..
"Georgia, see you don't know it, but I'm afraid to tell you how I really feel. But show you what I really mean when I'm sayin' hello. Oh, how I feel to watch you come and go"
…to the tenderly cheerful soul of "Stay High", about capturing a moment of happiness amidst all the trials of everyday existence…
"Everything is everything and everything is beautiful (How did you get like that?) See, all I do is keep it cool and don't worry 'bout what everyone is doing"
…via the searing political polemic in the head-thumping spoken words of the song "13th Century Metal"…
“I am dedicated to oppose those whose will is to divide us, and who are determined to keep us in the dark ages of fear.”
…and the reflection on the racism that affected her family when she was a child (her parents were in an inter-racial marriage) with the song "Goat Head"…
"Who slashed my dad's tires and put a goat head in the back? I guess I wasn't supposed to know that, too bad, I guess I'm not supposed to mind 'cause I'm brown, I'm not black"
With an album that crosses many musical genres, Ms Howard has come up with the goods as a solo singer/songwriter, albeit with an album that may not be immediately accessible to all who hear it. Musically the album may be a mash-up of musical styles, but consistent throughout is the power, subtlety and bravura of Brittany Howards' voice, yet the reason I can only give it four stars is because that voice often gets lost in the at times, musical maelstrom.
An interesting woman, an interesting album.
Listen. Think about it. Repeat.