On Alabama Shakes debut album, Boys & Girls, they proved an affinity for the roots-y rock ‘n roll. They were a tight band with a vocalist in Brittany Howard that rivaled pretty much any young up and coming soul singer record labels were attempting to shove down our collective throats. Not only could Howard sing so damn good, she could play guitar and write songs as well. She was the real deal. And with a band of not session guys, but friends and fellow like-minded souls, well the Shakes pretty much had it all. Thing is, they were predestined to be lumped into some generic category with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, and the list goes on and on. A band that wrote heartbreaking modern soul like “I Found You” and “Be Mine” shouldn’t be confined to the genre box, so Howard and company made sure the second time around that wasn’t going to happen. Sound & Color is a smorgasbord of rock, funk, soul, and a crisply modern take on the likes of Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield, The Delfonics, and even give Jack White a run for his money when it comes to grabbing the status quo by the lapels and shaking it around a bit.
The album opens with the starkly lit “Sound & Color”. It’s a melancholy slow burner that shows Alabama Shakes aren’t hiding behind a sheen of put-on grit. The song is in your face and very much present. Brittany Howard’s vocals are front and center with some serious low end in the kick drum. Strings, vibes, and keys float above in a cloud of reverb. This is the sound of a band in the now. “Don’t Wanna Fight” sounds like neo funk ‘n soul all mixed up in a Ronson-approved sonic stew. You could slap a layer of barbecue sauce on the rhythm section as meaty as it is, while Brittany Howard gets all D’Angelo in the chorus. This is the real deal, man. If Boys & Girls brought the Shakes the attention and good reviews, Sound & Color just brought a lifelong career. This is a game changer kind of record.
Sound & Color is a proper title for this album, as there are so many sonic shapes and colors being used here. The production game has been upped significantly, showing that Alabama Shakes are using the studio tools given them to their advantage. Adding a little grit and grime on a track like “Dunes” ages the track to give you the feeling you’re hearing some lost Muscle Shoals recording from 1971. Or on “The Greatest”, where the Shakes try on The Strokes’ dirtied leather jackets for nearly four minutes of angst-y soul/punk. They sweeten things up on “Shoegaze” and you get the feeling Creedence Clearwater Revival might’ve been spinning from time to time. And closing track “Over My Head” is a heartbreaking, soulful ballad that’ll keep you hitting rewind.
I think if Kings Of Leon hadn’t sold their souls for sex appeal and Youtube ads they might’ve been able to retain some of that gritty soul and cowpunk charm they showed on their first two albums. As it stands, they are lost somewhere in the vacuum of hair gel commercials and a pile of crushed Red Bull cans. As it stands, Alabama Shakes seem to be on the fast track to a wonderful and fulfilling career as the champions of a rock ‘n soul, with no signs of commercialism and ego swallowing them whole like their southern counterparts in the brothers Followill. Stay on track, Shakes. Sound & Color is a beauty.