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Album Review: Jaime by Brittany Howard

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by Alex MacLean

It’s rare to hear a record so brimming with life and creative energy as this one, at least for me. The kind of work that reminds you of the power music can have; paradigm-shifting, life-sustaining stuff. If you’ve heard the Alabama Shakes, you’ve heard this artist’s voice and her songwriting, but Jaime, her first release under her own name, feels like something else entirely.  While the Shakes are firmly a guitar band devoted to rock music, Howard’s approach is more varied on this one, with jazz and soul creating the backdrop for idiosyncratic arrangements that don’t really sound like much else now. It is an experimental, soul-searching album that is joyous, adventurous, tragic and romantic, concerned with mining the past for a blueprint on how to move forward and always do better. 

This unique and eclectic approach makes itself apparent from the first track, the funky and political “History Repeats.”  This track is followed by a pair of love songs, “He Loves Me,” and “Georgia.” The former is a stomping, swaggering gospel song devoted to God, the only man who loves Howard unconditionally even when she’s “smoking blunts…drinking too much,” and just doing what she wants. At first it seemed to be a romantic sentiment, but the song is intermittently interrupted by samples of a preacher’s impassioned sermon. The latter finds Howard expressing desire for a woman named Georgia to notice her. She wants so badly for her “to know what [she] means when [she] says hello.” It starts from a quiet place with stuttered hi-hats and Howard singing falsetto, but eventually the crush blooms, and the song blasts off from an organ break into a coda of laser-like sustained guitar. Other highlights include the stunning “13th Century Metal,” which rides a “Funky Drummer”-like groove and an ancient-sounding keyboard into oblivion as Howard repeats a number of powerful mantras: “We are all brothers and sisters,” “My spirit will never be stomped out,” “Give in to love.” The song swells and swerves in and out of dissonance, inviting choirs of saxophones and other voices to join in. 

The ninth track, “Goat Head,” brings the pace of the record to a halt, in the most stunning way. The song delves into Howard’s personal history and identity, detailing a hate crime her family experienced in her childhood, and the negative and inaccurate impressions foisted on her as the child of a black man and a white woman in small-town Alabama; choice line: “See I’m black, I’m not white / but I’m that, nah nah I’m this, right?” The song also strips back a lot of instrumentation and low end, opting for a minimal, airy trap-style beat with a chopped-up piano loop. This lets the lyrics, and Howard, speak for themselves without the possibility of her message being misconstrued. 

Jaime is so engaging because Howard is so confident as a songwriter and her band is so talented that she is able to essentially throw out the rulebook on making records. Not that there is one, but a lot of deviations from pop song form and production unequivocally make for a singular and more compelling pop record. Speaking of the band, Robert Glasper guests on keys and Nate Smith plays drums on most tracks here. Smith may not be a name you know, but it should be, because his performances on this album are the source of much of these songs’  power. The drum sound is heavily compressed and distorted in many songs, pushed to the foreground of the mix. This would seem like the “wrong” thing to do to a lot of mix engineers, if you’re trying to get a clean and clear drum sound, but it brings raw power and heft to Smith’s precise yet relaxed timekeeping; it makes the effortless cool of playing just behind the beat a key feature of these songs, just like J Dilla’s unquantized MPC drums were as they changed the face of music back in the 1990s. 

Jaime above all, rewards repeat listens. Every song has something ot offer; after many listens just sort of tuning out those that weren’t my favorite tracks, the magic of “Short and Sweet” became apparent, it does so much with just a sparse acoustic guitar instrumental and Howard’s impassioned vocals. It is definitely an album worth going back to if you missed it when it first came out.

Jaime is out now on ATO Records