Brittany Howard turns solo debut into a personal manifesto

  • Brittany Howard’s solo dbut album, “Jaime,” invokes ‘60s and ‘70s soul, funk, and R&B with some modern twists. Image from Facebook

Chicago Tribune
Published: 9/26/2019 9:14:28 AM

Brittany Howard’s ascent as the powerhouse singer-guitarist and driving force in the band Alabama Shakes appeared to be a dream-come-true scenario. She struggled for years to forge her identity in a nearly forgotten corner of northern Alabama, then released two best-selling albums in a row with the Shakes.

Yet despite the acclaim that greeted the garage-rock-meets-soul testifying of “Boys & Girls” (2012) and the more expansive “Sound & Color” (2015), Howard felt something was lacking.

Her solo debut, “Jaime” (ATO), breaks ground sonically and lyrically. It’s both more personal and daring, steeped in ‘60s and ‘70s soul, funk, and R&B, but with a rules-are-meant-to-be-broken twist.

Howard often treats her voice like an instrument, unafraid to smudge or even bury it in a stew of avant-noise and psychedelic textures that make it difficult to pinpoint exactly what is making a particular sound: Is that a keyboard, a guitar, a field recording, a distorted vocal or some combination of all of the above?

On the album’s opening cut, “History Repeats,” Howard states her intent to run free over a crossfire of percussion and funk-guitar accents: “I came and went/ I washed my hands with it/ I don’t wanna do it again.”

She animates a childhood crush for another girl in the yearning ballad “Georgia,” explores her relationship with God (it’s complicated) on “He Loves Me” and, most strikingly of all, describes the hardships of growing up biracial in the rural South on the harrowing “Goat Head,” with lyrics such as “Who slashed my dad’s tires and put a goat head in the back?”

The arrangements are just as bold, and occasionally disorienting. On the deceptively languid “Tomorrow,” the dreamy vocals give way to an urgently funky call-and-response section that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Parliament-Funkadelic jam. On “Baby,” her wailing multi-tracked vocals serve as a backdrop for the bumping bass and skittering keyboards, while on “Short and Sweet,” with her idiosyncratic phrasing, rapturous tone and stripped-down vulnerability, Howard conjures Nina Simone.

“Run to Me,” by contrast, folds its message of reassurance inside an ominous, reverberating soundscape in which Howard’s voice is nearly unrecognizable until it bursts into an operatic declaration: “I will be your partner when you can’t stand it anymore.”

The track’s disquieting beauty — worthy of a David Lynch soundtrack — serves as a counterpoint to the unlikely anthem “13th Century Metal.” Over twitchy Morse-code keyboards and chaotic drums, Howard lays out a social contract of sorts for the “brothers and sisters” with whom she shares the planet.

But it’s not larded with “we are the world” platitudes. Instead, as with much of this revelatory album, it’s also personal. “Just try and do the best you can today,” Howard reminds herself. “No matter where you’ve been.”

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