When you see Brittany Howard sing live—at a gig or on a video recording —couple of things strike you immediately: the raw, unbridled passion of her performance and the sheer range of her voice, which can go from a deep, raw baritone emerging from somewhere low down in her belly to a high soprano that tenderly wisps skywards. Howard, 30, is biracial (her father is African American and mother white) and she is the leader, vocalist and guitarist of the band Alabama Shakes, which emerged from a tiny rural town in the state of Alabama in 2011 when they released an EP of just four songs that quickly caught the ears of critics.

Since then, Alabama Shakes, who have been called roots rock and retro-soul revivalists, have hit the big time. They have released only two full-length albums (2012’s Boys & Girls and 2015’s Sound & Color) but they have, since 2013, won four Grammy Awards in different categories. A four-piece band in the studio (they usually add a keyboards player when they tour), Alabama Shakes’ sound is an amalgam of fiery blues rock with old-school southern soul. And while they have been compared to other contemporary artists (such as the Black Keys, Sharon Jones and even the late Amy Winehouse), their sound has a trademark feature: Howard’s voice, her compelling presence in the soundscape of the band, and her exuberance. It is rare to find anyone who listens to the band for the first time and doesn’t take an instant liking to her singing and the band’s music.

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Yet Howard has stepped out of the band to push the envelope even further. On 20 September, she released her first solo album, Jaime. The seeds for the solo project were sown after Alabama Shakes completed a gruelling tour in 2017. The band members, including Howard, were exhausted and she wanted to do something that would free her from the grid of performing songs from their released catalogue with her bandmates. She wanted to strike out on her own. What emerged is a set of 11 songs, written while she isolated herself in a tiny space in California and during which she played all the instruments.

Jaime is an album difficult to categorize but easy to fall in love with. Unfettered from the routine of playing with the band, Howard has experimented wildly. In a sense, that wildness could remind you of Howard’s upbeat performances with the band. When Howard, who wears glasses, has an unruly mop of hair and sports a large tattoo outlining her state on her right upper arm, sings, she holds back nothing—her mouth opens wide as she pours her soul into songs and moves her body to the music. On Jaime, the songs appear to emulate that style. She has dug deep into her wildest imagination, pulling out funk, blues, psychedelic rock and even gospel to create songs, each of which is unexpectedly different from the other.

The title of the album is actually the name of Howard’s elder sister, who first inspired her to take up singing and music. Jaime died in her teens from a rare cancer that affects the eyes (Howard too was afflicted but survived) and the album’s name is a memorial to her sibling and mentor. But the songs deal with many themes. In Goat Head, she sings about racial discrimination, when her parents came under attack for their mixed marriage; in Georgia, she sings about falling for an older woman (Howard is lesbian and now married to a musician); and in Stay High, she remembers her father and the good times they had as a family when her sister was alive.

When Howard was ready to record Jaime, she enlisted the help of other musicians such as Nate Smith (drums), Zac Cockrell (who plays bass with Alabama Shakes) and Robert Glasper (a keyboardist who has played jazz with luminaries such as Miles Davis). While the musicians helped fill out Howard’s core compositions, the experimental aspect of Jaime is unmistakeable. In He Loves Me, which deals with her love-hate relationship with religion, Howard has sampled segments from a gospel preacher. In 13th Century Metal, jittery synths create an unclassifiable bed of dislocated music over which she “speak-sings", almost like in a news bulletin, the lyrics: 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/ I hear the voices of the unheard/ Speak for those who cannot speak/ And shelter the minds that carry a message/ Of peace, love, and prosperity.

Howard has written simple lyrics for the songs on Jaime but she delivers them with her now typical style of singing: Soaring highs are countered with deep soulful lows; and ambient noise often provides the background to the album’s tracks. The songs are all inevitably about Howard as she goes back and forth into memory and life’s experiences, introspecting about the past and pondering the future.

Jaime could not be more different from the songs Alabama Shakes have recorded and performed. That band, highly talented though it has been, had a more straightforward retro-soul-meets-roots sound. On Jaime, a multifaceted Howard shows how much more there is to her and her music. Jaime is a daring, compelling and intensely intimate album. It is one of this year’s best releases.

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

Twitter - @sanjoynarayan

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