Right now, it seems that Southern “Roots Rock” group, Alabama Shakes, are swiftly becoming the next big darlings of American music. With a string of musical guest spots on everything from NPR’s All Things Considered to SNL, their second album, Sound & Color (via ATO Records), was released on April 21st to no small amount of public anticipation.
Let’s just start by saying, Sound & Color is an expansive deviation from the vibe of Alabama Shakes previous work. With patchwork of all things Americana: Blues, Funk, and 70’s Soul as rule as the primary pattern, just a touch of eccentric modern electrics (and some kind of high-caliber glam rock in the Freddie Mercury tradition), stitches it all together.
The album opens with the initially whispery title track, “Sound & Color”. It is child-like, a waltzy-lullaby played with vibraphones and organ, a total set-up for ears that like 70’s era pageantry. Previously released single, “Don’t Wanna Fight” follows it’s introduction closely with it’s peppy break-up (I think) anthem and frisky bass thump. Everything seems like it’s about to be well-mapped, maybe even very fun. And so the Alabama Shakes take a little time with hip shaking before getting gritty. But gritty they can and will get.
My ears really perked up with the third track, “Dunes”. Brittany Howard’s voice is handsome and enterprising, the perfect vessel for everything from gospel screeching to a Nina Simone-proud croon. Here she really lets it loose. And the guitars too. The guitars start getting eerie, its a theme that will play out through the rest of the trip. The following “Future People” rides those guitars perfectly into a haunting, distorted, baying power ballad. I mean “power ballad” in the best way, of course: in the sense of songs you hope to hear while out, or at the end of a night. It gets in the guts in that good way that songs sometimes do, when the band’s tight and the lyrics are playing fast and loose with their listener’s puppet-heartstrings. They are never shy with drums, most notably “Future People” ‘s cymbal crushing close, no doubt a true test to the kit’s capacity for beat.
Stunning vocals always deserve good content and lyrically, Howard slays by peppering her ballad-style songwriting with wry lines like “I’m gonna miss you, and your Mickey Mouse tattoo”, followed of course a few lines down with the Otis Redding tinged chorus that bleeds and wails“I’M YOURS” for track “Miss You”. They even take on a touch of punk pulse with the track “The Greatest” . In the dangerous places where the album steers into more a psychedelia sound, the lyrics go too, swelling with just enough futurism to make the resilience of classic rock count.
It seems nothing was cause for fear in Alabama Shakes’ quest to create this album. They bend every strand of influence, every throw-back tango with careful craft and vision. “Sound and Color” is a bold a strike at splitting away tacky retro from the classic, taking the scraps, and casting a new idea with the spine of something older. It’s ability to generally appeal to, well anyone, is undeniable for these reasons. Overblown’s readers should be sure to take in this album soon, before everyone is sick of it, because it’s about to pour out of even their parent’s playlists.
“Sound and Color” was released on April 21st, via ATO Records.