Released 4/21 via ATO Records
Rating: 6/7 Stars
Alabama Shakes’ 2012 debut album Boys and Girls was a tight, 10-track exploration of what modern day blues and rock band has the potential to be. Ball-and-chain vocals from lead singer Brittany Howard combined with rousing guitar and bass lines took the rock ‘n’ roll, blues-based energy of 1960s and brought them straight to 2012 without missing a beat.
The down-home vibe and intimacy of the record created a feeling that Alabama Shakes’ was like a regular performer at your local dive bar. But a local performer who had the potential to go out and do something a bit bigger and a bit more exciting with their talent. (Which they did: in 2013, they were nominated for three Grammys, including Best New Artist, and Boys and Girls was certified gold by the RIAA in 2013).
Needless to say, there were high expectations for anybody who became fond of the Shakes after their fantastic stomp onto the music scene and festival circuit three years ago. Sound and Color not only capitalizes on the success they had with their debut, but takes every element of their blues-infused sound and pushes it to the absolute edge, combining elements of rock and roll, country, R & B, and funk to create a genre-bending, 12-song tornado of staggering vocals and diverse instrumentation.
Influences range from Marvin Gaye-style swagger on tracks like “Guess Who,” to a 70s funk element on lead single “Don’t Wanna Fight” (thanks in large part to bassist Zac Cockrell’s effervescent groove). On the six-minute long “Gemini,” traces of psychedelic rock and guitar fuzz, combined with Nina Simone-esque vocals create a complexity not found previously on Boys and Girls. Conversely, “Shoegaze” evokes a feeling most similar to their earlier work; a bluesy-rock beat with a catchy chorus.
Singer and guitarist Brittany Howard solidifies her place as one of the strongest lead vocalist making music today. While the overt distinction is her booming southern growl, it’s on songs like album opener “Sound & Color” or mid-tempo “This Feeling,” where she proves even the loudest, gruffest of voices can still pull back for a tender performance. On the flipside, she shows her diversity on songs like “The Greatest” which effortlessly sounds like the band got together in a garage and threw together a brilliant, high-tempo rock jam.
Naturally, on a 12-track album, there are songs that pack less of a punch. Album closer “Over My Head,” has a steady beat that unfortunately feels a bit redundant (due in large part to the vocal layering of the same like “loving so deeply, I’m in over my head” repeatedly). “Dunes,” feels a bit muddled, and not quite as panoramic as the rest of the record. Still, the complexity and range of instruments– xylophones on “Sound and Color,” the soulful touch on “Don’t Wanna Fight,” Howard’s falsetto throughout the record– make nearly every track dynamic.
Howard’s ferocious vocals were the highlight of Boys and Girls, and while the rest of the band had a firm grasp on the styling of a southern rock blues-outlet, there seemed to be on element of restraint. On Sound and Color, the instruments explode. Guitarist Heath Fogg’s R&B drenched licks and Cockrell’s aforementioned funk don’t overshadow Howard, but instead noticeably maintain (without exceeding) her energy levels. The ferocity in their attempt to match her wild, unpredictable vocals is perhaps most evident on “Miss You,” where Howard’s lyrical explosions are followed immediately by an increase in the rest of the band’s tempo. When she immediately pulls back, they follow suit to create a tension and verve that they haven’t explored as deeply until now.
Boys and Girls was a roaring debut and a revitalization of pure Americana rock ‘n’ roll. On Sound and Color, it’s a step up. There’s less tightness to the production, with more of a landscaping expansiveness to nearly every song. With the powerful vocals of Howard, it would be easy for the band to go into the studio and make Boys and Girls, Vol. II. Instead, they manage something special that few artists can attain on a sophomore effort—true to their roots but infusing a breath of dynamic elements to keep the sound fresh. Sound and Color may not have been what listeners expected, but it certainly is astounding enough to keep them around for another round of the Shakes undeniable southern rock reign.