Review: Alabama Shakes – “Sound & Color”
April 22, 2015
Whenever the topic of powerful female vocalists comes up, there seems to be a general surprise that today’s music scene is peppered with them. Even songstresses can’t escape the nostalgic need to revert to music’s past for the best results. But the perpetual pedestal of voice is becoming crowded, where names like Nina Simone and Stevie Nicks have been glued for years, Alabama Shakes‘ Brittany Howard is sauntering in–with her guitar in one hand and her Bourbon in the other.
The Rock outfit whose own name concedes their American origins earned themselves three Grammy nominations with Boys & Girls, proving that music like most art, defies all aspects of gender. Three teasingly slow years later, their sophomore album has embarked on a grittier path, straying from the evident romanticism of their last stellar auditory offering. Sound & Color is a sensory blend of cosmic texture, a 12-track path manifesting Synesthesia with every note. So let’s take it apart a bit, shall we?
Author’s note: Forgive my long-winded sentences, they’re just as touchy as the sounds they’re trying (and failing) to describe.
The moment you press play to “Sound & Color”, the album’s titular track, you know there are good times ahead. The entire album starts slow and dream-like with this song’s pattern of choral repetition. How can someone achieve sounding lighter while simultaneously feeling heavier under the weight of such musical skill? Passion.
Then comes “Don’t Want to Fight” charged by the Blues-Rock roots for which the band is so revered, with a heaping side of Soul to wash it down. As usual, Howard’s voice is more than a tool, it becomes an instrument in itself–as if it were another guitar or musical appendage (although I’d prefer a bit more bass, but that’s my own Funky preference). But what sets this album apart is that the vocals are no longer the spotlight, but rather a presence carried on a cloud of atmospheric melody, setting the mood for each individual song.
The musical skill is a given. Her unrelenting falsetto in “Future People” and the extent of her chest voice in the madness of “Give Me All Your Love” shows the true range of not just hers, but the entire band’s instrument as a whole. The album calls to mind other artists: the Blues-Rock twang of The Black Keys, James Brown’s perfected shriek, Curtis Mayfield, and classic rockers of history’s past, while still reminding you of a sound that’s all their own; nearly impossible to place in a niche.
It seems their music, like all of life really, works off of extremes. The juxtaposition of “Give Me All Your Love”‘s exploding fire with the Sunday morning softness in “This Feeling” proves Alabama Shakes understands all matters of the heart to every degree of pain. Sound & Color shows definite maturity and growth for the band, a next step in a stairway to future (and current) greatness.
“Guess Who” is probably their funnest track, a perfect tempo for a drive to the beach. “Gemini” is their sexiest, with a D’Angelo-esque serving of light, fluttering vocals that set up camp under your skin. Its heavy creep perfect for a Tarantino showdown…or any stormy day, really. The quick switches in tempo are a perfect example of their ability to navigate music, risky and full of reward.
“The Greatest” is an ode to Punk and all things unrelenting Rock, crunchy with the Dorito-stained fingers of Garage. “Shoegaze” is my favorite track on the album, soft and hard, like a great makeout session. Don’t roll your eyes, you know exactly what I mean. And rounding out the thing is “Over My Head”, the necessary comedown after this auditory trip of an album.
I’m perfectly aware that this review is all swoons and compliments, but let me round it out with yet another analogy: In the same way that a baby picture (Boys & Girls) shows immediate resemblance to its adult prototype (Sound & Color), this sophomore album has all the traits we love of Alabama Shakes, but with the weathered maturity that only comes with time and exceptional space.
Don’t believe me? Check Sound & Color out on iTunes here, and listen for yourself. BRB, gotta go dancing naked in the rain and through the woods now. Peace.