Artist: Alabama Shakes
Title: Sound & Color
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Label: ATO Records
It’s the rock and roll success story we all still want to believe in: the one where a hardworking bar band produces a hit and goes from relative unknowns to festival killers in a matter of months.
That formula may feel familiar, but nowadays, success feels increasingly tougher for younger bands to maintain, what with a torrent of comparably-sounding acts and debilitating music streaming habits for them to overcome before they even book sessions for a second album. And yet, here are Alabama Shakes, three years removed from their smash “Hold On,” looking and sounding like mainstays in an industry awash in mediocrity. Their sound has darkened considerably on their sophomore LP Sound & Color, stretching its soulful arms from the deep South into outer space. In the process, it obliterates any lingering notions of one-hit-wonder-dom.
After what their rootsy debut Boys & Girls brought in solid but slightly analogous mid tempo rock songs, Sound & Color is refreshing in its experiments with dynamics. At any given moment, you might be serenaded by hushed acoustic plucking or blown back by the sheer might of lead singer Brittany Howard’s trademark yowl. Alabama Shakes have obviously grown as a band in this regard, and throughout the entire album a newfound experimentalism shines through. Fans of the last record’s concise, unpretentious songwriting will find a lot to like in songs like “Future People” and “Shoegaze” that serve up massive amounts of soul in small, tightly wrapped verse-chorus packages. But it’s on longer, weirder cuts like “Gemini” and “Gimme All Your Love” that the Shakes really find themselves in exciting territory, feeling confident enough to abandon songwriting conventions entirely and not worry about alienating listeners. Little nuggets of production genius like the vocal layering on closer “Over My Head,” the sultry string arrangement on “Guess Who” and the keyboard sorcery that colors almost every song will reward repeated listens, truly adding flavor and purpose to every tone and texture. The only element that remains largely unchanged is the lyrics, but Howard more than makes up for her predictability in this arena on songs like “Don’t Wanna Fight” with rousing, almost exhaustingly emotional performances. A voice like hers can make you believe anything, even if you’ve heard it a million times before.
Alabama Shakes have truly made an album that can be looked at and enjoyed from several different perspectives. It can be trippy and transportive if you give into its concept and lean back for all 47 minutes (Check out the 2001-esque video for the title track). Or it can be mined for its more straightforward moments, which would fit nicely into any respectable summertime mix. Either way, Howard and co. have broken the sophomore curse and the restrictive conventions of genre, comfortably residing in their own category. Sound & Color shakes the mothballs off of classic soul and exposes it to the perfumed air of the distant future. The worlds Alabama Shakes create in the album’s most breathtaking moments seem as if they must have existed in you all along, only you hadn’t been able to explore them.