(Self – August 29, 2015)
Review by Will Flourance
Thunderbitch is a self-titled surprise release from Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. With only two major label records prior in under 4 years, Howard and her bandmates have reached considerable acclaim and enough high profile recognition that Howard herself even shared the stage with Sir Paul McCartney at this year’s Lollapalooza. The exhilarating surge of stardom would leave most in shambles, ravaged by relentless touring and the exhaustive, fiery heat of the spotlight. Yet somehow, amidst the gauntlet of fame, Howard still finds time to hammer out a battle axe of a record in her creative forge. Thunderbitch is a raucous and fist-clenching romp through Howard’s hot-off-the-skillet specialties. This record dropped with guns blazing just when recent entries in her repertoire had indicated a more refined brand of rock for the more populous palate. With its no-nonsense bat-swinging and Jerry Lee Lewis chug alongs, this mode finds Brittany revving the loud pipes on her brand new hog. We always knew she could beat her way through a crowd, but now she’s doing it with a swinging chain a handful of brass knuckle.
The record’s opener “Leather Jacket” is a self-aware ode to a rebellious heart. The song’s imagery is a blunt proclamation that this record will abandon subtlety in favor of a revivalist take on early 60’s pop with a jagged cut. Fortunately, this is a natural fit for Howard. Her voice has always been her greatest asset, but usually in a more melodic sense. This pile of work finds Howard passing up tunefulness for fast and loose progressions. That is not say that these songs lack inventiveness, but the focus is more driven by carving out a convincing alter-ego that could care less about originality. Perhaps the definitive example of this is the wailing “Wild Child”, a jangly beater that is about is derivative as the styling can stand. Its all about blowing fuses on an oldies jukebox just to “get her kicks”.
Putting this record out so close to the release of the fantastic Sound and Color earlier this year was a risky move. There are no clear singles on Thunderbitch that could not have been done by an earlier incarnation of Alabama Shakes. For a side project, the record does not cover any uncharted territory and lacks a full commitment to the carelessness of its release. The record suffers from being a one-note put on that feels more like a halloween costume than a full swing split in identity. Though this collection of songs would not have made for a logical next move for Alabama Shakes, that does not guarantee that they belong on the same record because of a shared, trite common theme.
Ultimately the record does fulfill a personal mission Howard seems to have set out on. It distinguishes her as a sole creative effort capable of doing whatever she feels like. No matter how primitive and contrived parts of the record might be, it certainly does a great job fulfilling its suggestive title. Altogether the project is enjoyably haphazard, drawing murky water from the same well that put Howard and her band on the map. Her humbucking bravado and gnarled chattering grunts might be kicked up to ensure that something is different about these songs from the rest of her material, but the conclusive effect is the same. Thunderbitch is a whopper of a fun record that moves like a steam powered freight liner moving an industrial post-war America that’s only gotten meaner in its ways of rock n’ roll. It tells the story of spontaneously combustible revolt, ringing true that rebellion is often best served without a cause.