U.S. indie rockers Alabama Shakes could have repeated the formula behind their debut record Boys & Girls - thick, gutsy Southern rock that was ultimately a little too backward-looking to be truly memorable - and had a hit anyway, but on the follow up Sound & Color they’ve pushed forward into new territory while retaining all the trademarks that made them distinctive in the first place.The response to the band’s sophomore album is extremely heartening. They have garnered huge acclaim and recently the album debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart.
On this record, the band’s thunderous rock sound is complemented by an approach to composition and production that has resulted in a kind of overblown psychedelia. It’s the spacey head trip of classic psychedelia without the long, pointless sections of instrumental noodling - all the best bits condensed into sharp, blinding exclamation marks. Just check out “Future People,” probably the best track here, with its towering vocal harmonies and murky sub-aquatic fug. Despite this exploration though, the band have not lost sight of what makes this kind of record great - hooks, groove, and melodies galore.
Don’t be blindsided by the the title track that introduces the record with a swirl of electric piano, chimes and thick, sonorous bass. The track also features a string section that provides gorgeous texture and a beautiful and strange climax, but it is still a thumping good time. The band and producer Blake Mills fill every nook and cranny with details, but show enough restraint that it never gets in the way of the rhythm and melody. Even on the more melodically subdued tracks like the title track and the soulful singalong “Dunes”, there is a rapturous maximalism at play that is consistent across the record; the record’s low end is muscular and inescapable, and so is the band’s sense of groove.
Lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard is more than a force of nature, riding atop the hurricane conjured by the band like some mythological queen. Her strangely androgynous vocals move between a husky contralto and a piercing soprano without showing any sense of strain. The band all play brilliantly and bounce off each other like a well-built and well-oiled machine - a truly democratic band - but the bedrock holding everything together is drummer Steve Johnson. He is not a flashy player, but his sturdy contributions bind the parts of these enormous, unwieldy compositions and always bring the requisite funk.
It would probably become tiring by the end - the album is only ten minutes or so short of an hour - if the band did not strategically provide respite. At the centre of the record are the bluesy numbers “This Feeling” and “Guess Who,” the former an acoustic ballad that is still as rich and voluptuous and anything else on the record and the latter a jazz-inflected shuffle that juxtaposes the texture of a rumbling double-time drum machine part with soaring strings. Perhaps a more appropriate name for the record would have been Light & Shade; the band know just when to push forward and pull back so that the music remains consistently surprising and engaging.
The contrast between ballads and rockers (sometimes on the same song as on the wonderful 6/8 tarantella “Miss You”) makes for an absolutely stunning record. Alabama Shakes have proven that they’re in the game for the long haul. It’s rather unusual that a rock record that takes so many of its cues from much older styles is this rich and rewarding. Compared to many of their rock contemporaries, Alabama Shakes are on another level entirely. Sound & Color suggests that they know and that they’re fully prepared to make the most of it.
Sound & Color is out now on CD, vinyl and digitally.