Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color

Soul rockers free their minds to explore new psychedelic worlds on their second album

ON THEIR 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes coined a hot retro mix of black Southern soul and white rock & roll that connected. It was the kind of instant-vintage album that college kids and their record-buying grandpas could love, and it made the Shakes a rare success story among new guitar bands in the streaming era.

Sticking to that formula must have been tempting, but Sound & Color shows that this band aspires to be much more than roots-rock poster children. This is a weirder, woozier, fiercer and sexier record than their debut in nearly every way. Yes, singer-guitarist Brittany Howard still taps classic R&B vocal moves, those spirit-channelling shouts and moans; guitarist Heath Fogg still echoes licks from Al Green sideman Teenie Hodges and Stax mainstay Steve Cropper. But they’re touchstones that get transformed by production fit for a cannabis dispensary.

The title track kicks off the album with a statement of intent. Vibraphone notes float by in deep reverb, suggesting a classic slow-build soul burner like the lonely brass that opens Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. But it’s all foreplay: Howard’s voice enters in layers, settling into a hall-of-mirrors call-and-response chant while discordant strings tug at the melody and electronics flicker like old bar neon. “A new world hangs outside the window/Beautiful and strange,” Howard sings with a delicious born-again dreaminess.

There’s often a firm dividing line drawn between modern R&B vocal styles and what came before them – you’re either Sam Cooke or Trey Songz. It’s great to hear Howard ignoring those rules. Her stretched-out vowels chart a spacey Soulquarian head trip on ‘Gemini’ and swarm in fractal harmonies on ‘Over My Head’. Howard pushes her voice on the old-school tracks, too: The Stax-y single ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’ showcases steam-kettle squeals; there’s new playfulness in the reggae of ‘Guess Who’. And if you have any feel for rock or soul, hearing her detonate the titular demand of ‘Gimme All Your Love’ – “sing” is too puny a word – should rival the most thrilling music experiences you’ll have in 2015.

Fogg and Howard’s guitars stay minimal, serving the songs, but their palette has broadened. They give us distorted, mosh-ready runs on ‘The Greatest’ and glassy-eyed glissandi and sustains on ‘Gemini’. Some credit clearly goes to producer Blake Mills, a guitarist with masterful tonal command who’s one of rock’s best vintage-to-modern mediators (see his work with artists from Fiona Apple to Conor Oberst). Touring keyboardist Ben Tanner has a new prominence on organ and synths; moonlighting string arranger Rob Moose continues to prove himself the 2015 version of David Bowie/Elton John collaborator Paul Buckmaster.

Howard’s lyrics tend to dodge specifics, and at times they feel disappointingly vague. But the ache, frustration, hunger, wonder and bliss in her idiosyncratic hurricane of a voice – magnified by music of new imagination and detail – stand out more clearly than ever.

© Will HermesRolling Stone, 21 April 2015

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