From the first moment I picked up Boys & Girls, the debut album by Alabama Shakes, I was in love. You see, while the songs themselves were well written and played to seeming perfection, it was the voice of Brittany Howard that wormed its way into my ears and found itself digging out a permanent home in my heart. Jesus, I can remember thinking at the time, this woman can sing. Eventually, after seeing her perform live on PBS and on YouTube, that thought solidified into something as definite as the laws of nature.
In a time where much of what gets recorded and released to the public is shaped and molded in the studio through Auto-Tune and many other subtle sonic manipulations, it still manages to catch me off guard when I am fortunate enough to discover a voice that electrifies my imagination. If I were to be honest with myself, I think the only other voice to truly thrill me in the past 10 years is that of Beth Hart, who is a throaty vocal goddess in my eyes (or ears, at it were).
This is why, of course, when the opportunity came to give a listen to and then write about the sophomore release from Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color, I jumped in with no hesitation. No matter what I thought, at the time, I knew I was going to be in for more of the same great music and singing, no matter what. It turns out, I was both right and yet as wrong as I could possibly be, all at the same time.
The wrong part was that I was going to be in for more of the same, as this album is a very different thing than Boys & Girls. A luscious and powerful block of soul and R&B-based rock goodness, that first album was (at least to my ears) a coherent statement of talent. Here we are, it seemed to say, let us play for you, and share our music with you. The new record? Well, the talent and the music is there but instead of a showcase for what they knew they could deliver, it seems like a sandbox that they decided to play around in (sonically speaking) as they explored their own sound.
And, exploration, if I had to boil down my thoughts about this album to one word, is what Sound & Color is all about. Instead of sounding like a continuation of the sound first born in the wood-paneled walls of the Muscle Shoals studio, this is an album filled with daring and deliberate choices that showcase the risks and adventures the band found itself attempting in the studio. Check this out: These songs seem to say to your eardrums, “We wondered if we could build on the foundation of Boys & Girls, and BOY did we.”
With the soft and gentle opening of the title track as it builds and builds upon the melody and Howard’s plaintive voice, it seems – even for just a moment – that you can see the general direction the new album is going to take. Then the hammer of funk and joyful soul-singing that is “Don’t Wanna Fight” grabs hold of your head and shakes itself free of such ideas. Man, you think as the groove catches you, this is a damn good song.
Eventually you come to realize that there are nothing but damn good songs on this record. Fierce and fiercely searching for itself as it answers back with spacey reverb and devilish bass lines, the music on Sound & Color is just amazing. Even then, of course, there is still one moment where you think you have come to accept and admire the drive and obvious work that went into this record, and all of your preconceptions of what this band is capable of are shattered.
For me that moment is “Gimme All Your Love.” Honestly, I have never heard anything as thrilling as the guttural growl of a vocal performance that Howard throws into the microphone in the tune’s short and utterly amazing four minutes. That one song makes me think I can nearly comprehend the idea of something being able to lure sailors to their rocky doom simply through the power of singing. Brittany Howard could sing my ass into a cliff any day of the week.
Buy this record immediately. Seriously.
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