Home 9 Blog Posts 9 New Album Round-Up: Brittany Howard and IDLES

New Album Round-Up: Brittany Howard and IDLES

by | Mar 13, 2024 | 1 comment


By Marci Cohen, Head of Instruction and Consultation, Boston University

Vintage rock artists are filling arenas and stadiums, but in the current sales charts, pop dominates. Still, rock musicians who started their careers in the current millennium continue to make a stir. Two higher-profile guitar-based acts, Brittany Howard and IDLES, have new albums, What Now and TANGK, respectively, that fit into different slots in their artistic trajectories.

Howard, a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, began her career as the leader of Alabama Shakes. Their 2012 debut Boys & Girls spawned the breakout hit “Hold On” and Howard as the breakout star. The band released one more album before she cut loose as a solo act. She has become a mainstay of award shows, wracking up five Grammy wins and sixteen nominations, and she has been a repeated performer or presenter at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Her songs are in regular rotation on the Album Adult Alternative radio format. 

In interviews for Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes members dismissed comparisons to the 1960s soul hotbed in Muscle Shouls (well documented in Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music : Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1986)), claiming they never heard of the city’s studio and its output until the press started asking them about the home state connections. But the first Alabama Shakes album is conventional rock, and that conventionality is even more apparent in light of Howard’s broader-ranging solo work. On What Now, as with 2019’s Jaime, Howard continues to expand her musical palate. 

Brittany Howard

Howard co-produced the What Now with producer Shawn Everett. It touches on psychedelia and ‘70s soul, especially Curtis Mayfield. But “Prove It To You” nods to current dance music, although the press release for the album emphasizes that those are analog rather than electronic beats. “Earth Song” quietly opens then broadens with piano, layers of overdubbed vocals and jazz-style drums from Nate Smith. The title track ruminates on a relationship that’s run its course, set to a chorus with a buzzing guitar line. “Red Flags” is another love-gone-wrong song, but more prominent are the voluptuous shifting textures. “Samson” touches the edges of free jazz. Among the elements making the album modern rather a retro pastiche, in “Patience” she addresses a female lover; it’s a big deal that this is no big deal, that queer lyricists no longer need to camouflage their queerness.

Bristol, England’s IDLES have built their reputation on their incendiary live shows. They stand out as a rock throw-back. While most superstars have turned their concerts into multimedia spectacles, such as U2 in the Sphere in Las Vegas, IDLES have no LED screens, no choreographed dancers, and just rely on the entertainment value of their own cavorting on the stage. They have a willfully terrible fashion sense that couldn’t be mirrored by fans. Guitarist Mark Bowen is a wild man in the spirit of a more deranged Angus Young who would be the focus of most bands, but he’s upstaged by charismatic frontman Joe Talbot. 

In the spirit of the Clash and Billy Bragg, IDLES are focused on the uplifting power of music to build community and compassion. What separates them from those forefathers is their post-punk sound, in other words, rock music with a heavy, rumbling bass. IDLES rose to prominence with their 2018 sophomore album Joy As an Act of Resistance, anchored by the pro-immigration track “Danny Nedelko” and displaying a sense of humor with “Never Fight a Man with a Perm.” They continued to tour well in 2019, then the next two albums Ultra Mono and Crawler arrived in rapid succession, 14 months apart in 2020 and 2021, providing more of what listeners had come to love. 

TANGK sounds like the result of taking a breather. It’s a transition album, not unlike U2’s Rattle & Hum. They’ve done all they can do with their signature sound and are trying on new clothes, attempting to find what fits. There are echoes of Radiohead, and not the early guitar crunch of “Creep” but the later, weirder, more cerebral Radiohead. This reflects the input of Nigel Godrich, who joined Bowen and Kenny Beats on producing the album. Godrich has worked so extensively with Radiohead that he is sometimes described as their sixth member. Where previous albums by IDLES have been explosive, pummeling, and punishing with occasional reprieves, TANGK is notably somber, quiet with occasional bursts of noise.

Like the Who’s Quadrophenia, TANGK opens with quiet piano tinkles on  “IDEA 01.” Drummer Jon Harper’s unexpected patterns create tension on “Gift Horse” and “POP POP POP.” (Yes, the band does like their capital letters. Cognoscenti don’t make the mistake of using only an initial capital. Cognoscenti also don’t make the mistake of preceding their name with “the,” which implies the homophone noun rather than the intended verb.) Bassist Adam Devonshire takes the backseat on songs like “A Gospel;” he doesn’t make the walls rattle on every track. “Dancer” is more in the spirit of anthems from previous albums, including a scream-along chorus. But the decibel level drops on the next track “Grace” which focuses on the phrase “I said love is the thing” practically murmured over a collage of studio experimentation. At the surface, “Hall & Oates” resembles an angry screed, but lyrics reveal it as a love song for both the people in Joe Talbot’s life and the blue-eyed soul duo from the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Jungle” also brings in themes of redemption; the band is stretching sonically but lyrically remains firmly grounded in a positive view of humanity. They practically tip-toe out with closing track “Monolith,” which ends with a mournful saxophone, unimaginable on their previous albums.

There is certainly still a place for artists who aren’t parading the decades-old hits or mounting spectacles like BTS or Taylor Swift. In playing rock music in 2024, Howard and IDLES are inherently aiming for a more limited audience although pursuing different paths. What Now sounds like part of a continuum of growth for Howard. As she sings in “Another Day,” “I am having the time of my life.” For IDLES, TANGK sounds like a way station before they land on something new.

1 Comment

  1. Stacy Perkins

    What a great way to start my day, a review on 2 of my Absolute favorite new albums. I am stoked with Tangk and dig Brittany Howard. Thanks!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Tea Time With Katina And Leah

4-12-24 The wonderful Ramune Kubilius sends us this astonishing news!   Garbage collectors in Ankara, Turkey, started noticing an increasing number of books being thrown away. Rather than let them end up in landfills, they began rescuing the books....

Tea Time With Katina And Leah

4-12-24 The wonderful Ramune Kubilius sends us this astonishing news!   Garbage collectors in Ankara, Turkey, started noticing an increasing number of books being thrown away. Rather than let them end up in landfills, they began rescuing the books....


Share This