Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color

sound and color_ASAlabama Shakes
Sound & Color
ATO
4 out of 5 stars

After the wild success of Alabama Shakes’ debut album, it took a lot of courage to veer into the territory they explore in Sound & Color, a deeply layered collage of tempos and textures – and a seemingly hard left-turn from their previous work. Patient listeners will hear evidence of the R&B-tinged retro-rock they crafted on Boys & Girls, but here, it’s just an element of a greater groove – actually, grooves; they pursue myriad versions in these 12 songs. Sometimes the rhythms skitter and stutter; sometimes they throb, or soothe. More often than anything, they surprise and intrigue.

The title track really does capture the nature of their work; its shimmery vibraphone tones lay a sweet bed on which singer/guitarist Brittany Howard nests her vocals. It also foreshadows their intent for the next 11 songs, which are more about finding the place where groove and mood meet – or collide – than simply rocking out. R&B and funk drive “Don’t Wanna Fight,” one of the album’s more direct references to their earlier output. But with a squealing falsetto, Howard announces unorthodoxy is the rule of this road. On “Gimme All Your Love,” she goes from Billie Holiday crooning to squeaks, screeches and shouts, finding power she didn’t know she had, and that’s exciting. When guitar, bass, organ and synth slide together on the break, they make magic. It doesn’t happen on every track; some, like “The Greatest,” are simultaneously great and grating. But all have ear-capturing elements. 

“Shoegaze,” another more straight-ahead mover, mixes grunge and funk for a fun little bash. On “Miss You,” Howard goes for torchy retro-blues, but with a more twisted ache in her voice. Most of these songs aren’t lyrically deep, though “Gemini” has some fine lines (ironically, they were patched together from random phrases, like magnetic poetry). Exhibiting influences from Miles Davis and the ’70s output of Creed Taylor’s CTI label to psychedelic Stax and Motown, that song and the finale, “Over My Head,” really do express sound and color, shadings and stylings. A vibe. One that’s ultra-cool.