Reviewed: Black Alley’s Soul Swagger Rock Sneakers
You shouldn't label Black Alley a "go-go" band. It's limiting, if not wholly inaccurate. While the D.C. septet incorporates the genre's congas, cowbells, and cymbal-heavy drum breaks, its sound is rooted in alt-rock and neo-soul, with dashes of hip-hop and funk for good measure.
That blend has worked well for them so far. The band has amassed a following performing weekly at hotspots Indulj and Bar 7. Last year, after a competition at the 9:30 Club, it opened the HFStival at Merriweather Post Pavilion. The annual throwback festival mostly contained indie-rock and pop-punk, while Black Alley's aesthetic is brazenly Afro-centric, from the urban gear the members wear to the R&B classics they cover. Unlike plenty of go-go groups, Black Alley doesn't rely strictly on covers to get the party jumping. Instead, this group opts for its own self-described concoction of "soul garage."
On its self-proclaimed "street album," Soul Swagger Rock Sneakers, Black Alley breezes an array of sounds with abandon, paying tribute to deceased musicians Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain along the way. Elsewhere, the band proves it can bolster a go-go groove on the edgy "Heavy Hitters," ignite a dance floor on the bouncy "Shake.Stop," and simulate a West Coast vibe on the hazy instrumental "Smoke Break."
From there, the pace slows considerably, allowing vocalist Kacey Williams to rise above an otherwise raucous soundtrack to contemplate the less glamorous aspects of relationships: dealing with a no-good man, the tug-of-war between love and lust. The results are impressive: "So Much..." makes great use of a Love Jones movie clip, hovering keys, and snapping percussion, over which Williams gets downright raw. "We fuck so much, and love so little," she sings at the onset. That honesty continues on the sultry "Virgin Suicide," with its sexual opening poem: "If I let you see me naked, will you still know how to look in my eyes/Will you still find the way to my heart, and see that as the ultimate prize."
So Rock Sneakers is certainly ambitious. Sonically, Black Alley successfully executes the genre-hopping indulgence of its dynamic live show, with plenty of heart-pumping guitar riffs and pace changes to boot. But it has missteps. The reflective "Club 27" is well-intentioned, but its placement between the stampeding "Shake.Stop" and "Used" interrupts the album's energetic flow. The interludes become tedious after a while, and the Nicki Minaj cover, "Did It On 'Em," feels a bit excessive. While the song works for the band's live set, it doesn't translate well to the album. Still, those faux pas don't tarnish the album's overall luster; Black Alley marks its territory as one of D.C.'s best bands of any sort. Talk about swagger.