Alabama Shakes have returned. Their debut Boys & Girls, featuring (though not limited to) Hold On, was a veritable success back in 2012. Their sophomore offering Sound & Color, then, had quite a lot to live up to, not least a gig at the White House, though that might not be saying much since recent years have also seen Nick Jonas and Natasha Bedingfield perform there (scratch that last - we all live in hope of a comeback).
Immediately there is an undeniable confidence to this album. The titular track unfolds slowly and is teasingly evasive. It gives barely anything away about what to expect of the rest of the album. We are reminded afresh of what we liked about Boys & Girls – roots-y harmonies, summery vibes, and unquestionable class – but all used sparingly. It’s a soulful, steady ascent, in which Brittany Howard’s voice is deliberately restrained, floating above late-to-arrive strings. Don’t Wanna Fight No More packs a little punch, then, when an electric riff introduces some slick and simple guitar work from Heath Fogg. It’s all well and good so far. Now, please forgive me for being microscopic briefly; 0.38 seconds in, and Howard’s voice screeches in, right to the pit of your stomach. I think my precise reaction was “Fuck.” The controlled rawness is arresting and I’m reminded about what was so compelling about their debut - Howard’s, for want of a better word, ludicrous voice. That’s not to say Howard is the overshadowing presence – the bass lines and tight riffs are super rich. They seem to have more space than on Boys and Girls; flecks of funk are allowed to bubble under the surface and signal what proves to be an insightfully kaleidoscopic album.
The next track, Dunes, takes us down another little avenue. The tempo is slowed and sniffs a little of Zeppelin for a moment, only to toy with some Rhythm and Blues later. Dunes, again, is rich with Howard’s vocals (warning: this will come up a bit). We get tinkering keyboard flourishes, which reverb and chime fading-out to echo the vibraphone that added depth to Don’t Wanna Fight No More. Future People is spinal. It conflates the roots-y rock and roll that is at the core of Alabama Shakes, with satisfyingly crunchy electric guitar, and Californian breezy summer riffs – the guiding force, obviously, Howard. Her falsetto is masterful and the chorus is forceful. The album twists again. Gimme All Your Love starts jazzy and hazy with a bursting, powerful chorus that develops into what is an immensely satisfying instrumental. Howard wrings through the speakers “Give me all your love”. Oh well, if you insist.
The Feeling strips everything back again, utterly soulful, and perhaps a little lacking in the instrumental richness that the rest of the Shakes have demonstrated, nay insisted, so far in this offering. The brimming emotiveness of Howard’s crooning, however, is compensation enough. The rest of the album keeps up the good work. Guess Who is a truly fruity, mellow summer track. The Greatest relishes in playfulness. Miss You is unapologetically soulful, sounding authentically Motown. Gemini is a reverb-y slow-burner that is reminiscent of D’Angelo (dear God, perform together please!). The finishing track sees some satisfying drumming from Steve Johnson (sounding like a fusion of Brubeck and recent Portico) underscoring some soul choir brilliance from Howard. In round she overlays “I’m in over my head.” But she’s not; she’s a tour de force.
Sound & Color covers far more ground than Alabama Shakes’ debut. The teasing pull and retreat that structures the album indicates a tension between staying close to home, something imbued lyrically, and developing new sounds. Though I doubt it’s something they are genuinely uncomfortable with (because it works so well), this album seems to mark a desire to leap away from Alabama roots. The result seems more expressive and, at times, riotously fun. A “fuck you”, if you will, to those (myself included) that had them neatly boxed as roots-y soul. It certainly resists being road trip music, something I’ll admit Boys & Girls became one sunny journey up to the Lakes. Sound & Color is a richer album, and demands a re-listen. It’s certainly more likely to be an album I don’t merely dust off once the sun comes out.