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alabama shakes – sound & color

out april 21st via ato/rough trade records

out april 21st via ato/rough trade records

alabama shakes becomes an entirely different entity when brittany howard opens up the peak of her vocal range on “future people.”  the quartet played things relatively close to the chest musically on 2012’s boys & girls and on the first chunk of their follow-up album, sound & color, but “future people” marks the band’s coming-of-age.  busting down such a significant barrier in such a simple, direct manner is in line with the bravado alabama shakes has displayed in the past, and it’s the kickstart they needed to begin cultivating their true, original sound.

boys & girls glaringly reflected the environment alabama shakes was bred from, but the album simultaneously underscored an incredible penchant for powerful songwriting; it just needed time to grow naturally and to be gradually coaxed out.  as always, howard’s lyrics are captivating and her vocals high-octane, but she exercises a bit more restraint on sound & color that allows for a wider long-term contrast.  she reins in her falsetto on the mostly-acoustic ballad “this feeling,” and this volume level lends itself well to the contemplative nature of the subdued subsequent track “guess who.”  gone is the propensity to bare all for as long as possible before quickly pausing to recover; howard now uses a plethora of vocal timbres – and benefits from new instrumental ones – to convey exponentially more emotions.

the extended vibraphone introduction on “sound & color” is the first indicator of the album’s expanded palate, though it initially presents as an anomaly, quickly displaced and overshadowed by the sonic familiarity of “don’t wanna fight” and “dunes.”  that’s why “future people” is so critical; not only does it signify howard’s vocal renaissance, but it lays the groundwork for the band’s inclusion of tangential sounds.  zac cockrell’s bass playing is felt heavily across the entire album, though his presence is most commanding on “future people,” where he squelches out subterranean notes with fervor, and the song introduces alabama shakes’ newfound use of the hammond organ as the primary chordal instrument in the band.

this gradual embracement of supplemental instruments (keyboards, mallet percussion, strings) as harmonic and counter-melodic sources allows each core member of the band more leeway to expand their own roles.  howard and fellow guitarist heath fogg can still churn out power chords like nobody’s business (“the greatest”), but sound & color increasingly finds them padding already-thick textures with arpeggios and scorching melodies, an extension of the interplay that existed on their debut.  steve johnson’s drumming is vastly improved overall; he dictates the structure of the numerous ballads that litter the album, the most important being the dynamic shifts in “gimme all your love,” and his command of syncopation and ability to manipulate beat placement gives songs like “over my head” a dimension that was absent throughout much of boys & girls.

sound & color is an incredibly self-aware album, one that shows that the shakes know they can’t afford to play it safe, even in the mainstream rock community that has feverishly absorbed the band and placed it on a pedestal.  rather than simply paying homage to their myriad progenitors, alabama shakes have instead found a way to incorporate a multitude of sounds and toe the line with innovation, though they have yet to put significant distance between themselves and commonplace revivalists.  archetypes of each genre visited are referenced, not exploited, but this collage feels steeped in familiarity at critical moments, relying on the blues tropes in “don’t wanna fight” and “gimme all your love” to both hold the album together and to drive it home.  sound & color ultimately may not be the band’s definitive offering, but it certainly lays the groundwork for a potential masterpiece.

7.3/10

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