Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes

ATO Records, 2015

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Sometimes I enjoy music without completely getting it—it grabs me in a visceral way, but it’s just so different in some respect that it’s harder to parse and comprehend what I’m hearing.

That reality came to mind during my first listen to Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color, an album that takes classic Southern styles—soul, r&b, blues, and rock—stuffs them in a blender, and pours out rainbows. Not liquid rainbows; ACTUAL rainbows. Sound & Color takes these familiar genres and says “Yeah, those are some cool building blocks, but check out how we turn them into something no one has ever heard before.”

Alabama Shakes were already a big deal when this sophomore album came out in 2015. Their 2012 debut Boys & Girls reached number six in the U.S. and earned three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist. With expectations high, the band—Brittany Howard (vocals), Heath Fogg (guitar), Zac Cockrell (bass), and Steve Johnson (drums)—delivered an album that topped its predecessor in creativity, if not commercial success. Sound & Color isn’t so much an album as an experience, a sidestep into an alternate musical universe in which all the normal rules have been suspended.

The captivating Howard’s lyrics feel like passionate free-form poetry, with meaning largely left open to interpretation even as her delivery overwhelms with emotion. Meanwhile Fogg, Cockrell and Johnson, with assistance from touring keyboard player Ben Tanner, twist familiar forms into new and unexpected shapes.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Heralding all that’s coming, the album’s kickoff title track opens with a vibraphone solo (!) that gradually adds drums, bass, vocals, and guitar, never progressing beyond a sort of hypnotic, bluesy chant. “Don’t Wanna Fight” feels like old-school gospel-influenced r&b that’s been injected with pure adrenaline, its strutting chords nearly blown off the stage by Howard’s explosive lead vocal. Then “Dunes” delivers heavy blues-rock, a Black Keys influence evident in the bruising guitar and outsized, cymbal-heavy drumming, but leaning to psychedelia with its hazy production and woozy wind-down finish.

Things only get more untethered and unpredictable as you move into the middle of the album. “Future People” layers a halting, hypnotic beat over a hyperactive guitar line, before “Gimme All Your Love” electrifies with grinding, explosive blues for 2:30, at which point the song shifts 180 degrees into a driving soul-rock segment that reframes the melody entirely, before melding the two arrangements into one like a mad alchemist. As if momentarily spent, the Shakes then turn to “This Feeling,” an acoustic blues backlit with glowing gospel organ.

“Guess Who” offers a midtempo, chiming fugue, leading into “The Greatest,” a propulsive blues-rock eruption that feels an awful lot like the “maximum r&b” imagined by The Who; Howard’s sassy cackle at the end is the cherry on top. “Shoegaze” feels like a lost Janis Joplin number, all classic-rock thrummy, and then “Miss You” starts out like a lounge blues number with sing-songy guitar chords and swishing hi-hat before blowing up at the chorus like a propane tank in a wildfire.

Penultimate track “Gemini” offers a delirious contrast between chiming vibraphone and sustain-heavy, fuzzed-out guitar, an extended, six-minute-plus psychedelic blues-gospel-soul fantasia. Finally, the album closes out with “Over My Head,” a rather contemplative complement to the Fleetwood Mac song of the same name, another lyric about a love so big that it makes you feel like you’re losing control. Here the twist they throw in is a quirky, hitching tempo and arrangement.

Sound & Color feels like a head trip to an alternate universe where Billie Holliday fronted a band made up of Jimi Hendrix and the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and at some point in the proceedings they all did a hit of the same stuff the Beatles were on while recording Sgt. Pepper’s. The thing is, whatever genre-busting musical shenanigans Alabama Shakes is up to at any given moment, the band is tight as hell, with the wildly charismatic Howard’s powerhouse voice as its center of gravity. However odd or different the individual songs can sometimes feel, they are consistently compelling, thieves of attention that may just steal your heart as well.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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