3 Bands You Should Be Listening To: Alabama Shakes, Hope Waits, and Ryan Leslie

Three years ago, my musical awakening began via a seven hour drive from North Carolina to bumfuck Tennessee for the Bonnaroo music festival. Five days and zero showers later, I was hooked and determined to continue my auditory education however possible.

I still don’t know it all, but what I do know is these are three music acts you’ve got to hear this month!

The Alabama Shakes

Ever since riders of The Pony Express braved the Wild West to deliver packages both big (think Kate Upton) and small (think Kate Upton’s bikini), the U.S. Postal Service has developed a reputation of delivering no matter the circumstances. Postwoman turned lead singer Brittany Howard, is continuing the USPO tradition by delivering some of the most incredible Indie Rock vocals of the year as frontwoman for the surging Alabama Shakes.

“Hold On”

Hailing from Athens, Alabama, 40 miles from legendary southern music mecca, Muscle Sholes, Howard and crew are quickly proving the small Dixie city has way more than the Swampers – they have a quintet of bonafide bluesy rock stars on the verge of a breakout after cutting their April debut album, Boys and Girls.

Looking for hits on the album is about like looking for herpes outbreaks along the Jersey Shore – they’re everywhere. The record opens with the inspiring “Hold On,” where Howard croons a message of hope in her intimate, soulful voice that makes ya feel like she’s singing directly to you about getting through your shitty day. Howard has been compared to everyone from Janis Joplin to Macy Gray to Robert Plant, but the highest praise I can give is she’s the kind of singer who makes dorky white kids like me throw caution to the wind in attempts to emulate her powerful notes – windows down, head throw back, squinty eyes, contorted O face, the whole nine yards.

But, Howard doesn’t carry the mail alone. Guitarist Heath Fogg and bassist Zac Cockrell punctuate her gospel pipes with some fancy guitar strumming on the album’s third song, “Hang Loose.” The tune starts with a folksy twang before talented drummer Steve Johnson jumps in to keep time – no easy task, but compared to his last gig as a nuclear power plant worker, is child’s play.

Oh, and if you’re planning to go see them live, be ready to rock – they’re opening for the one and only Jack White.

Friend them, follow them or let them rock your face off.

Hope Waits

Several weeks back, a buddy of mine called to ask if I wanted to join him and a few others after work on Friday to watch one of his wife’s college friends, Hope, perform in their living room. In between chiding myself for not realizing they were down with the kinky stuff and explaining to the lady at the gas station that yes, I really did want to change a Benjamin for 100 singles, I texted him back that hell yes, I would be there.

As I strolled into his house, I was shocked he’d invited our entire softball team, their spouses and several small kids were running around. I’m an open minded dude, but this was getting weird. Equally unsettling was the fact she was introduced by a bearded guy claiming to be her fiancé and holding a banjo. As the situation clarified, I slipped my gangsta stack back into my pocket and resigned myself to the fact that “I’m making it rain,” would not be coming out of my mouth.

“Drown in My Own Tears”

Fortunately, the music was pretty darn good.

Hope Waits kicked off her “performance” with a trio of soulful ballads reminiscent of Nancy Griffith and Norah Jones. She is one of those classic songstresses who spins such quirky, funny stories between tunes that you actually don’t mind when songs end because you’re excited to hear which bit of life’s wisdom her sweet Louisiana twang will impart next.

Her debut Album, Introducing Hope Waits, is a solid download in that whole “pretend-I-only-listen-to-this-soft-stuff-when-I’m-wooing-my-woman-but-secretly-sing-along-to-it-in-a-really-awkward-voice” kinda way.  Check her saucy rendition of “I’ll Be Satisfied” for my favorite track and a taste of her sexy, soulful sound.  “Cigarettes and Coffee “is a close second because after you let your wife, girlfriend or secretary listen to the first one… well, a cigarette might come in handy.

Friend her, follow her or let her rock your face off.

Ryan Leslie

Admission – I’m usually not a big rap or hip fan.  Don’t get me wrong – I dig some of the beats, “big booty hoes” in the videos, and the linguistic gymnastics guys like Twista perform to make non-rhyming words rhyme. My main issue is not being able to understand what the hell the lyrics mean. See below from Kelis.

“My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and they’re like, it’s better than yours. Damn right, it’s better than yours, I can teach you, but I’d have to charge.”

Does Kelis drive an ice cream truck? What makes her milkshakes so good? (Please be Reese’s Cups!) How much are said milkshake making lessons?


Fortunately, when I went to see emerging hip hop star Ryan Leslie perform in Brooklyn last week, there were no milkshake riddles – only clear, concise and smart lyrics. Which shouldn’t be a surprise – the dude scored a 1600 on his SAT and graduated from Harvard… when he was 19.

“Why Dey Hate Me”

His self-titled debut album, Ryan Leslie, is an interesting mix of raw rap and smooth R&B accentuated by funky electronic reverberations that crash around his voice like waves on a shore. If you’re new to his stuff, check out “Diamond Girl.” In addition to some pretty nice layered beats, Leslie shows he can sing – bouncing seamlessly in and out of falsettos before slaying the next verse.

Addiction” is another good tune and club request sure to get the ladies dancing in ways their fathers would never approve. Fabulous (solid rapper, terrible speller) makes a guest appearance in the final verse if you’re checking the guest book… which also includes folks he’s written or produced for including Beyonce, Brittany Spears, Cassie and more.

Looking for something more recent? Les is More is due out soon. “5 Minute Freshen Up” is my favorite preview track from the album – check this sick, behind-the-scenes video for a sneak peek at how he develops his sound and why driving a yellow Lambo is never a bad idea.

Friend him, follow him or let him rock your face off.


Related on The Smoking Jacket:
3 Bands You Should Be Listening To: Lukas Nelson, The Walkmen, and Ghost Observatory 
Mashups Are for Gum Flavors 
Music Review: Alabama Shakes