Hold On (2012)
You can’t put a price on true soul. And you can’t bend it, twist it, or patty-cake it into something palatable as pablum, marketable as a Big Mac and “pretty” like a fashion magazine.
Alabama Shakes asked the big questions that start with “Why…?”. There are plenty of performers making blandly endearing music that’s sanded so smooth only a dead husk of what might have been is left.
“Hold On” by Alabama Shakes
Brittany Howard steps boldly outside the mold that has hardened into a (tap-tap) plastic shell around women (in particular) in pop music. We are a thousand times richer for her efforts. She’s a real person with feelings deep and true. She and her band’s ability to digest the countless genres of Blues, Soul, Funk and other so-called roots music and rework them into something brand new and listenable in the second decade of the 21st century is a signal achievement.
If Otis Redding and Janis Joplin had a musical love child – with The Band as attending physicians and the whole Staxx Record crew present at the christening, (Amy Winehouse catering the event) – the name of that child would be Alabama Shakes. What’s more, we can listen to them, nod our heads and say without reservation, “Now that’s Rock-N-Roll.”
“Hold On” is first among equals on the 2012 album Boys & Girls. Almost any of the songs might be considered a strong DNA source song of Rock. “Hold On” has the additional attribute of being popular, sailing, as it is, against the winds of homogeneity.
It’s funky grooved opening holds a strong echo of the beginning of “My Girl” by The Temptations. Its swaying guitar lines repeat a number of times until Howard’s unique, assertive voice kicks in:
So, bless my heart and bless yours too
I don’t know where I’m gonna go
Don’t know what I’m gonna do
There must be somebody up above sayin’
“Come on, Brittany, you got to come on now!
You got to hold on…
Hey, you got to hold on…”
Musically, the entire number rests on the original opening groove while the personnel keeps varying the instrumentation, first leaning on Steve Johnson’s Levon Helm-inspired drumming, yielding to the lead guitar, then onto the supremely funked up Zac Cockrell bass, which then gives way to an outstanding crossing guitar duet between Brittany and Heath Fogg, who joined the group after he heard a demo tape of what was at that point a trio. The band is at its best when it maneuvers through such tidy little tours de force into a release where all play in unison.
Fittingly, given the generational pull there is an ever-so-slight hint of Hip-Hop in “Hold On,” one that gives us a tantalizing sip of what that genre might be like if actual musicians played and sang on current pretender-to-the-throne “R&B” tracks.
“Hold On” slows down to a near crawl as it ends. A sustained, fuzz-tone feedback sound washes over the song as Brittany Howard grows more delicate in her singing, a slight hint of breathiness sneaking in. The girl is a natural.
She has real soul, real heart, and an instinct that can’t be coached or engineered by consultants. The whole band comes across that way. It’s thrilling. Anyone who can recollect their first listen of Music From Big Pink or Janis Joplin’s “Down On Me” or “Piece Of My Heart,” or any of the grittier stuff from Memphis in the 1960s and ’70s, will marvel at the way Alabama Shakes channels not the music alone, but the exuberant freedom felt palpably in those recordings.
“Hold On” springs from the deep fountain of life. Real music made by real people for an audience laboring to find the authentic in an increasingly artificial world.
- “Retro soul is not what we’re going for, though it’s understandable why people say it,” says Brittany Howard. “We take inspiration from that, but we all understand Black Sabbath, too. On the record (album), we left a lot of room for whatever we want to do in the future.”
- “Hold On,” grew out of an on-stage improvisation. Discussing the genesis of the song, Zac Cockrell says, that as they were performing live, “We threw out that riff and Brittany started singing along, and the crowd started singing with her like it was a song they already knew.”