Alabama Shakes whipped through town like a whirlwind, powered by the devastatingly destructive voice of singer/guitarist Brittany Howard back in 2012 with their debut album Boys & Girls, brandishing a brand of blues rock that clung to its roots in pre-1975 Americana. Finding themselves thrust into the limelight, despite lead singer Howard having never left her home state of Alabama, it launched them into the record collections of Led Zeppelin loving, bearded men the world over. At the same time they resisted all urges to be bracketed with the soul revivalists like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, despite the southern soul tinged stylings of the material and the blindingly obvious soul powerhouse vocals of Brittany Howard.
This new album, Sound & Color, will find them being tagged with the soul music label more and more, due to the acceptance of the broader aspects of their influences. More ready to shine the roots of southern soul that hung on the periphery of their debut album, the band is happy to let the satisfying thud of "the one" take charge at times, while also reveling in the opportunity to run the whole gamut of their sound, honed by touring in the years since that debut album.
Album title track and opener “Sound & Color” offers both lyrical and musical clues to what will follow over the course of the 12 songs on offer here. The delicacy and subtlety of the song demonstrates a broadening of the sounds on offer, while the opening lyric, "A new world hangs outside the window beautiful and strange," ably frames the forthcoming songs as the diverse array of attractions yet to come.
“Don’t Wanna Fight” follows the subtlety of the opener by kicking the door down, grabbing you by the ears and dragging you to your feet. The porcupine spike funk surges, and Brittany Howard’s first vocal is a quite enthralling mix of whisper and shriek that has to be heard to be believed. Despair and desperation pours from her golden larynx, until she sits spent at the end of the song.
“Dunes” snail-paced languidness and discordant piano ending is a treat and the interwoven guitar lines of “Future People” accompany Howard at the very top of her register, proving she can sing any way she chooses. It is the next track, however, that is the pinnacle of the album. A song of depths and heights sung to perfection. “Gimme All Your Love” is a tropical storm -- verses of balmy warmth are followed by the chorus’ hurricane force winds as Howard’s voice steeples and twists, then plummets and swoops, threatening to careen out of control until it cracks perfectly in heartbreaking ignominy. That nothing else on the album reaches those heights again is no criticism; it merely shines a light on the emotional train wreck it leaves behind.
Howard’s falsetto is so breathlessly intimate on “This Feeling” that it feels like soothing lotion after the blisteringly hot “Gimme All Your Love” has left its scorch marks, while “Guess Who” with its lo-fi Motown sweetness pours further balm on those aforementioned scars.
Another peak is “The Greatest,” a piece of proto-punk complete with a Beatles-like breakdown and off-kilter, hurdy-gurdy, child’s play melody. “Shoegaze” sounds like the offspring of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and UK new wave group Squeeze. “Miss You” is a soul ballad with added guitar nastiness that builds inexorably to the pleading, aching chorus.
Finishing off the album are two songs that wouldn’t feel out of place on an Erykah Badu or Georgia Anne Muldrow album. “Gemini” and “Over My Head” boast impossibly muddy, sedated funk grooves and never-ending stretched out guitar lines. Sadly what this does, though, is leave this ending feeling slightly downbeat or anticlimactic, yet both demonstrate that the path ahead for Alabama Shakes could head in any number of directions -- soul or otherwise.
Front and center throughout is the astonishing, force of nature voice of Brittany Howard. It is at turns powerful, delicate, triumphant and heartbroken. She most definitely lights the way, but the band as a whole have crafted top quality songs with a more pronounced musical weight, to give the album a greater appeal to soul fans, as well as their already sizable fanbase.