Sound and Color, the second studio album by southern US rock band Alabama Shakes, is probably one of the the edgiest albums of the last year.
It’s from a band that’s turning around its retro-rock image to say “Hold on, that’s not who we are”. In Sound and Color, the quartet pushes many boundaries with surprisingly good results. The music is fierce, weird and free, a little rough around the edges, but stays remarkably fresh.
The title track is a jazzy, tripped-out sound, about an astronaut lost in space for 500 years. Brittany Howard’s quivering voice meets vibraphones and deep reverbs to create a soulful, dreamy melody. In Don’t Wanna Fight she screams, squeals and wheezes to a composition characterised by Led Zeppelin-isque riffs and a bluesy tune reminiscent of The Black Keys.
Howard’s voice is, to a large extent, what made the Shakes famous; here, she uses her voice to make weird melodic sounds and guitarist Heath Fogg delivers often-spooky fractured riffs that add to the whole psychedelic effect of the album. We also hear a lot more of bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson. In Future People, chiming background gospel singers and thunderous bass interludes create a tantalising mix of harmonies.
The album also displays Howard’s masterful skill as a lyricist. Miss You, a retro soul-rock ballad, begins with her softly singing “I’m gonna miss you and your Mickey Mouse tattoo.” The imagery evokes memory and longing very effectively. The writing is almost like Howard decided to put her thoughts down and turn them into song. It brings a certain rawness to the album and makes it rather addictive. For example, in Gimme All Your Love, Howard shouts and howls — one can completely imagine her stomping her foot, not ready to take no for an answer. It’s one of the most memorable tracks of the album.
The variety in sound makes this album the kind that can be heard on a good and even a bad day, but not all its experiments work. Where soulful tracks like Miss You show Howard’s vocal prowess, others like The Feeling that don’t work quite so well.
Gemini is a slow, haunting composition of deep riffs and echoes, but becomes boring as it drags past six minutes. Then there is The Greatest, a fun, punk-rock tune that ebbs in the middle but ends in a crescendo of the band going cuckoo — like the madness of the Beatles meeting the rawness of Green Day.
That said, in an album which should adopt “experiment” as its middle name, there are more successes than failures, and Howard’s voice is aching and raging and demanding your attention for most of its length.