As soon as the lead single, “Don’t Wanna Fight” dropped, it was clear that Brittany Howard got the same memo as Kendrick and Mark Ronson: bring back that funk. But that’s only one of the accomplishments for Howard & Co.’s Sound & Color. Alabama Shakes’ sophomore effort is filled with the same blues/roots rock combo, infused with Howard’s poignantly soulful vocals that skyrocketed them to pop music prominence in 2012. Their ascent is one of expansion; with every cut on Sound & Color, they extend their stylistic tendrils further and further into a world of musical creativity.
Beautifully, Alabama Shakes has matured with their relative stardom; Sound & Color is as solemn as it is fun, and takes itself more seriously than their debut record, Boys & Girls. And despite the vibrant album title, Shakes starts off the record with a darkly ethereal foray into space – “A new world hangs outside the window, beautiful and strange, it must mean I’ve fallen away” (“Sound & Color”) – that aptly describes the landscape of the whole album, characterized by wonderment and cosmic solemnity. That landscape is a complete reinvention of space-rock, here married to neo-psychedelia and retro-soul. It manifests itself most strongly through the sweeping, six and a half minute adventure, “Gemini” – the album’s heavy hitter whose ghastly echoes elucidate the novelty of Brittany’s voice and whose tense wall of psychedelic frenzy steps into the ring with the likes of Kevin Parker and Josh Homme. Summarily, the carefully crafted aura of the outer-space explorer makes complete sense. In a 2013 interview with BET, Howard cited David Bowie as one of her favorite artists, noticeably shying away from the obvious comparisons to the likes of Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. But the band’s new and more nuanced sound essentially has the same soul, is done in the same spirit as their first record, free from secrets and esoteric meanings lurking behind the music. It’s still raw and genuine like it’s always been: “The way the music sounds, what I’m talkin’ about, the way it makes you feel, it’s all right there. That’s what it’s about” (CNN 2012).
Stylistically, an undulation between frenzy and steady grooving is nearly always present, even when things aren’t getting psychedelic. The bleeding-heart closer, “Over My Head,” follows this model, rocking steady with a snare-keyboard combo that builds towards a maddening crescendo of back-up vocal harmonies halfway through the song. Other cuts that contain chaotic auditory peaks include “Future People,” “Gimme All Your Love,” “Miss You,” “Greatest,” the radio-ready “Don’t Wanna Fight” and the apathetic “Dunes” on which Brittany informs us the world of her inner disarray: “Oh, I think I’m losing it.”
Howard’s descent into madness is quite welcome as long as it fuels her diverse imagination. In an addendum to her new penchant for celestial wandering, Howard takes her talents a new direction on “Shoegaze” – a nod to the sub-genre of indie music with the same name. The track is a fresh, even unexpected addition to the band’s capacity for introspection. At times, the soft, humming melody smacks directly of Silversun Pickups’ mid-2000s mammoth hit “Lazy Eye.” “Shoegaze,” thankfully, isn’t the only time Brittany smiled during the recording process, as “The Greatest” is a ray of sunshine and the wildly funky “Don’t Wanna Fight,” which manages to shriek like a haunted combination of James Brown and Earth, Wind and Fire, makes sitting still difficult. And even though the biggest hit is the second track of the album, Sound & Color avoids useless filler. In the middle of the album, the juxtaposition of “This Feeling” and “Guess Who” — both listen like a lullaby — with Friday afternoon garage tune “The Greatest” reveals an awareness of how Alabama Shakes’ listeners experience their work. The former two cuts leave us with a deferred disappointment, calling into question the excitement and ferocity that we thought was at the center of Alabama Shakes’ sound. Importantly, though, that disappointment is never siphoned from its place of deferral. “The Greatest” extricates that purgatorial disappointment and replaces it with head bobbing relief.
Indeed, the Alabama rockers are masters of their craft; that spacey intro on the title track might just be a ploy to make us turn the volume up, the result being an inability to shut the album off. And as Sound & Color continues to gain momentum and captivate listeners, poor Wikipedia will have to add another few genres to the band’s palette – shoegaze, dream pop, funk-rock, retro-soul, what have you – in a pointless attempt to capture their sound. For Howard and her cohorts, it’s never been about imitating Franklin, Brown, or any of the great artists whose work has influenced them; it’s always just been about making music because it’s fun. And that’s a beautiful thing.
If you’re only going to hear one song from the album, hear this:
Title: Sound & Color
Artist: Alabama Shakes
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Label: ATO, MapleMusic, Rough Trade
Producer: Blake Mills