The Alabama Shakes frontwoman's debut solo album is a warm revelation, both powerful and unmistakably hers.
It's a miracle to watch the way Brittany Howard fills a space.
Her daunting presence as both a vocalist and lyricist pulls the audience in as she works graciously with the instruments at hand, no matter if she's performing as the lead singer of Alabama Shakes, the blues-rock outfit that catapulted her to stardom, or in her side projects, Thunderbitch and Bermuda Triangle. Now on Jaime, her first solo album, you get the sense that she's really showing off.
She sings in a rhythmic muffle on jam-session opener, "History Repeats," whispers lovingly and timidly to a crush on "Georgia," and proclaims prophetically over Robert Glasper's keyboards on "13th Century Metal;" it's impossible to pin her voice down in one place. That's not only from a technical standpoint: Howard's songwriting as a solo artist is generous. She offers close intimacy and deep understanding of imperfection and want. You can't deny the radical heartbeat of "He Loves Me," the bass flexing under Howard's confident growl: "I don't go to church no more / I know He still loves me." The album feels like an experiment in comfortable control, as Howard fashions herself into Jaime's emotional lodestone. Everything comes and goes through her.
Brittany Howard - He Loves Me (Official Live Session) www.youtube.com
Jaime is unmistakably a labor of love. Howard's creative freedom and her ability to experiment are tools to help her navigate the album's emotional life. She grapples with faith, identity, memories of queer love, self-medication, recovery, and heartbreak: an interior journey bottled into a compact thirty-five minutes of memorable rock. "Tomorrow," one of the album's most inscrutable and compelling cuts, uproots itself into a new song every so often, seemingly just to keep the listener from getting too comfortable: "Now that we're here / without lifting a finger / how do you figure / we get lifted?" It's to Howard's credit as an artist that she forgoes easy answers and grand statements in favor of a constant, nearly-painful closeness. (The sound of that closeness is another gift of Howard's work with Shawn Everett, engineer and producer for the Alabama Shakes.)
But Howard isn't giving away too much: Every story she tells and every stream-of-conscious lyric she unrolls feels protected and conditional—and all the stronger for it. It's why a cautious, magnificent love ode like "Short and Sweet" doesn't sound out of place next to the thumping heartbroken bitterness of "Baby" just a few songs later. It's also why "Goat Head"—a harrowing song about Howard's childhood memory of a disturbing hate crime committed against her father, a black man with a white wife and a biracial child in the South—can fit in smoothly, without shocking the album out of its feel. The song continues to paint Howard as an embodied presence on the album.
You understand, from the hold Howard has over the course of Jaime's runtime, that every moment here is personal. It's even more consequential, and more searing, because of this intimacy. Genre isn't of much concern for Howard on Jaime. She interpolates the blues and rock concoction she's known for as handily as she does the near-religious fervor of soul or the loose unpredictability of jazz. There are even strains of chamber-pop or '80s synth-schmaltz, but it all manages to feel authentic and organic. Flashes of jubilation appear throughout the album. The gorgeous romance of "Presence" is decidedly joyful, as she promises herself to her partner over a twanging guitar and a harp: "What's this world got without your spark? / You make me feel so black and alive." Arguably, the best part of Jaime is how much Howard seems to enjoy being the main character, and her staggering talent lets her play this role to its beautiful, fullest extent.
Brittany Howard - Stay High (Official Video) www.youtube.com
"I'm doing wonderful, just fine, thank you / Everything is everything and everything is beautiful," she coos in her singular croon on "Stay High."
Howard has crafted a solo debut that wouldn't sound out of place playing out of the windows of a car on a moonlit night, or shaking the walls of a small blues club. It's an album that pairs well with the clinks of ice in a drink and the murmur of familiar voices in the next room, or the kind of comforting loneliness that swells when you hit play on a full album just to pass the time. Jaime can be a melancholy space, an angry space, or a warm space, but it's always a welcoming space, one that Howard put heart and soul into building. Debut projects rarely have this sense of intention, of flexibility, of generosity, but that's really the miracle here, that Howard invites us into her space.
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