Alabama Shakes’ latest release Sound & Color effortlessly raises the stakes and cements the band’s placement in contemporary rock history.
Artist name: Alabama Shakes
Album name: Sound & Color
Record label: ATO Records
Genre: Rock, Blues, Punk, Funk
Release date: 04/21/2015
Stand out tracks: “Sound & Color” “The Greatest” “Gimme All Your Love” “Gemini”
Relisten value: [Rating:9.5/10]
Non-skipping streaming: [Rating:9/10]
Dorkproval rating: [Rating:9.5/10]
With all the noise kicked off by their debut album, the Alabama Shakes set an intimidatingly high bar for themselves with their second release. Co-produced by Blake Mills, their sophomore album Sound & Color raises the stakes while showing off like it wasn’t even kind of difficult.
After Boys & Girls, the band has been on a seemingly endless parade of tours and festivals, maintaining their reputation of being one of the hottest live acts in the country but also honing their ‘once heard, twice famous’ sound, stripping it down, building it up, rinse and repeat. This album reveals a band completely in tune with one another, playing to each other’s strengths while also daring them to keep up. Everyone, including honorary band member Ben Tanner on the keys, is in step with each other throughout this album but especially on the most fun song of the dozen, a punk Americana unbridled good time with a band just playing with each other; if any one song can sell a concert ticket, it’s “The Greatest.”
Look elsewhere if you are searching for another album that reads like a diary. With lead vocalist Brittany Howard’s lyrics, the string arrangements of Rob Moose, and the band culling from 70’s influences, these twelve tracks play like the soundtrack of a never-made science-fiction romance about a problematic heroine with enough love to revive a dozen dead suns. Though “Dunes” seems to be about the second-album jitters, the band plays comfortably as Howard sings of losing memories and her mind, not knowing whose problem it is or whose fuck to give. “Over My Head” leaves our protagonist with an all-consuming love she knows is too much for her and her naturally depressed state, “Here for now/But, not for long/Where will my mind slip away?” Layered vocals let Howard sing over herself, “I’m in over my head/Loving so deeply I’m in over my head” which cannot apply to the band itself due to the fact they shine through every track with strength and resilience.
The title track opens with Howard softly singing a lullaby about falling awake into a world of all-consuming loneliness, one she never left save for dreams. The swelling strings of Rob Moose raise a curtain to the story, inviting in the taut strumming of “Don’t Wanna Fight.” Zac Cockrell’s funky bassline blends well with Heath Fogg’s blues guitar but Steve Johnson’s drumming compliments Howard’s furious howl of submission to the world around her. Showing a little prog-rock ambition with “Future People,” Johnson’s crashing cymbals and Tanner’s frantic keys back Howard well as she sings sweetly though still rallying for folks to think to the future where things have to get better as they do in the upbeat ballad, “This Feeling.”
Johnson’s drumming style has become minimalistic but complex, even muted as with “Guess Who,” which seems like a lounge singer’s cover of Gil Scott Heron’s “The Needle’s Eye.” In both songs, neither singer is willing to assimilate to the bullshit. Fogg’s exemplary guitar playing reaches its zenith in this year’s Is This Prince? award winner, “Gemini,” the darkest Purple Rain track we never got. If “Sound & Color” is our heroine waking up, then “Gemini” is the psychedelic fever dream she finally remembered. With “Miss You,” Howard seems to openly invite a million more Janis Joplin comparisons, though it’s obvious her vocal range simply cannot be restrained, especially in a song where the love growing within our heroine overtakes her and she eats her words, not only taking back her ex-lover but roping him, screaming “I’m yours!” like it’s not just a gift but a life sentence.
The dark backbone of stand-out track “Gimme All Your Love,” is Johnson’s steady drum and Cockrell’s swaying bass. In it, Howard expands her vocal range to hit a falsetto and deliver her signature howl in an attempt to disguise a demand as a plea. Fogg pierces through with formidable power chords and together the band utilizes their signature device of quiet to lure you into their game of extreme aural double dutch where everyone shows off and the hairs on your arm stand to salute.
While some bands would rebel against the sound which shot them into the limelight, the Alabama Shakes embrace it and expound upon it with the tenacity and ambition of one fighting the system.
Written by Lori Hidalgo