The pleasing xylophone pings that begin “Sound & Color,” Alabama Shakes’ sophomore effort, betray nothing. The record’s opening track sends listeners into the void with a gentle introduction, shuffling drums and a repeated refrain of the song’s title behind emotive vocal riffs from lead singer Brittany Howard. But nothing here is new. Everything here has happened before. The track is simply a reminder of where we’ve been before, a signifier that, yes, these are the Alabama Shakes you’re looking for.
And then, with the kick of a bass drum and a high-pitched squeal, in the next eleven songs, those same Alabama Shakes do everything in their power to transform themselves into something entirely new.
“Sound & Color” finds the Shakes intentionally broadening their sonic palettes, something Howard said the band would be doing with little regard for disenchanted brush back. They were going to make this album this way, whether you like it or not. The result is a confident, irresistible slab of alternative southern rock more than capable of finding its way in 2015.
The pop tendencies are ever-present on the first half of the record as Howard and her band of swamp-ridden men turn shackled guitars into the most danceable thing this side of Athens, Georgia, on the lead single “Don’t Wanna Fight.”
A band that sounded, in its first major-label album two years ago, like it had spent the better part of two decades perfecting its sound, is immediately even more comfortable in its own skin. The layered guitars on “Future People,” the album’s finest track, weave a two-toned tapestry with murky drums, on top of which Howard can belt to her heart’s content.
And that, as is always true with the Shakes, is where “Sound & Color” takes shape like few other records that will come out this calendar year.
In the album’s finer moments, Howard’s voice pulls all of its tricks out of the bag. She coos and belts; she whimpers and lashes.
On “Gimme All Your Love,” Howard accelerates from dainty come-ons (“Why won’t you talk with me for just a little while?”) to guttural calls in a matter of seconds, and her mastery in balancing the delicate and powerful is executed with finesse. The band melts into tiny guitar plucks, subtle bass stabs and hi-hats during the verses before exploding with crashing cymbals and big, boisterous guitar chords. It’s a demonstration of what the Shakes can do when they’re at the peak of their powers, and the tempo switch in the latter third of the track is more evidence of the same.
Yet Howard doesn’t sound so unhinged and loose on every track.
On the acoustic ballad “This Feeling,” this is a positive. The song, which instrumentally would sound at home alongside Neil Young or The Band with its guitar taps and acoustic strums, summons a Muscle Shoals kinship when Howard harmonizes with raspy backing vocals during the soaring chorus. Howard reins her voice in for four and a half minutes, and it’s executed perfectly.
Howard adds previously untapped affectation to her voice on the album’s weirder and more eclectic second half. The songs, while not quite always in-step with their antecedents, offer something fresh and new, a side of the band both familiar and yet still surprising.
The easy, laid-back jangle of “Shoegaze,” the album’s shortest track, calls to mind mid-form Rolling Stones. Howard breaking out her finest Mick Jagger impression? Well, the Stones were always doing their best blues impressions, anyway.
Of the 12 tracks on the record, the only one that falls even slightly short is “Miss You,” a vague, largely unnecessary filler track sandwiched in between the band’s Stones impersonation and a six-minute sludge of guitar porn in “Gemini.” It throws off the rhythm of the record without leaving a meaningful impression and could have easily been left off the final track listing.
Even still, Howard and the band sound as at home as ever on “Sound & Color.” They spend equal time refining their near-flawless sound and exploring its new sides, which are bound to be fleshed out in future records.
And all along Howard never skips a beat, the tick-tock temptress leading the best young band in the land down their own path of righteous rock ‘n’ roll.