Alabama Shakes will not be pigeonholed
As powerhouse front woman Brittany Howard and her bandmates made abundantly clear when they appeared on Sound Opinions supporting Boys & Girls, their breakthrough 2012 debut, their embrace of bluesy roots-rock was less coldly calculated appropriation and nostalgic recreation than an organic channeling of the sounds surrounding them growing up in Athens, Alabama, as funneled through their entirely personal travails in the here and now; in no way was the defiance and desperation of Howard’s famous howl of “Bless my heart, bless my soul/Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old” a put-on. Coupled with all of the usual sophomore-album hurdles, chief among them the lack of surprise that greeted that first blast of Howard’s vocal power, the challenge for the group on Sound & Color was to show us what else it had and where else it could go, maintaining its roots but expanding them without sounding forced or compromised—no easy feat, as evidenced by another soulful diva from across the pond, Adele.
“Kaleidoscopic” is the word that keeps popping up in reviews of the new album, and it’s an appropriate one. As many of the soul and R&B greats of the early ’60s expanded their sounds under the influence of the psychedelic explosion of ’67, the Alabama Shakes broaden their palette wildly with a bevy of electrifying guitar and bass sounds—this is where the Shakes prove that, like Blondie, they are a band—to say nothing of touches of vibraphone and orchestra. They reinterpret Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield much as D’Angelo does, only rarely sounding retro or conservative, while veering as far afield as extended ’shroomed-out jamming (the fuzzed-drenched “Gemini”) and hardcore punk (the ferocious explosion of “The Greatest”). In fact, the album only lags when the band sounds too much like the group on Boys & Girls (“This Feeling” or “Shoegaze”), but even then, we have Howard’s vocals, which continue to be a marvel.
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color (Rough Trade)
Rating on the 4-star scale: 3.5 stars.