opinion byBRENDAN FRANK
For most intents and purposes, the arrival of Alabama Shakes was the arrival of Brittany Howard. On the band’s 2012 debut Boys & Girls, her monstrous voice was a showstopper, a continuous exhibit of versatility and power, her meat-and-potatoes lyrics an emotional tent pole for music with very specific geographic origins. A few Americana/roots wrinkles aside, Alabama Shakes are a blues band, and a singular voice like Howard’s can energize anything, even a genre that has been around longer than any human on Earth. A strong supporting cast is always a plus (Zac Cockrell on bass, Heath Fogg on guitar, Steven Johnson on drums), but Howard is deservedly the band’s main draw.
Three full years later, Alabama Shakes have relinquished the element of surprise, but they have doubled down on songwriting polish. Sound & Color is not a shameless Kings of Leon lunge at stardom – the band is still a little too off-kilter for that at this point. Instead, their second full-length finds them gradually, assuredly expanding the margins of their sound. The recorddoesn’t take any major risks, but everything Alabama Shakes do, they do reasonably well.
Which isn’t to say that the record is lacking in surprises. The band have markedly improved their use of dynamics, effortlessly letting their songs simmer before setting off a cascade of drum fills, a blast of bass or a shriek from Howard. “Dunes” starts off as a coy one-woman show before morphing into a towering gospel romp; on the excellent “Future People”, the razor sharp guitar chords sound as though they’ve been sheared off of a Stevie Ray Vaughn solo; “This Feeling” is so understated it may as well be made of thin air.
In addition to displaying an improved command of their instruments, the band’s songwriting shows more confidence as well (all tracks are credited to Alabama Shakes). The fleet-footed funk of lead single “Don’t Wanna Fight” is weary where “Hold On” was hopeful, a riskier sentiment for a lead single. “Gimme All Your Love” moves from a whisper to a wail and back again with a spring in its step. Even in the moments of angst, the playfulness in the compositions suggests they have come from the heart more than the head.
It’s tough to hop around like this without a becoming a little uneven, which Sound & Color is. “The Greatest”, a ballistic cowpunk tune in the vein of Meat Puppets, never feels like it belongs, even if it could scorch the ground in a live setting. “Shoegaze” is the record’s most conventional track musically, though it contains some of the album’s most memorable couplets (“Let’s go make memories/Precious and temporary”). Overall, the lyrics are the album’s weak link, but even the old blues tropes are strengthened by Howard’s delivery.
The biggest thing that Sound & Color seems to have going for it is how agreeable it all seems. Alabama Shakes don’t rock the boat necessarily, but by refining the formula, they’ve proven they can succeed with a model that has become all too easy to fail with in recent years. No two tracks sound alike, and there’s enough to work with here to suggest that the band can eventually grow into Howard’s voice. The conclusion is inescapable; this record is impossible to dislike. B