It’s rare that a band reaches acclaim with their debut album and then manages to top that with the follow up. But that’s what Alabama Shakes have achieved with Sound & Color. The 2012 release, Boys & Girls, had the great strength of introducing to the world the incredible voice of Brittany Howard. It was a very polished effort that marked out a striking sound, somewhere between Creedence Clearwater Revival and old soul music, with a touch of The White Stripes thrown in; an impressive package that demanded attention.
What makes the second record stand up so well is that, rather than succumbing to the temptation of rehashing the same sound, the band has pushed themselves into new musical areas. And as a consequence of taking this risk, there’s a raw edginess on the new album not present on the debut.
By the same token, this is not a complete reinvention. The ingredients that initially drew listeners to the band are all there, but by adding subtle elements of psychedelia, prog rock and garage grunge into the rhythm and blues mix, we hear a multi-dimensional band, mature beyond their years. The release therefore has a very fitting title: an album that demonstrates an expanded sound and greater diversity in colour.
Starting with the soft, soulful title track, where the sound of the xylophone hints at the more diverse instrumentation to come on the record, we then get the catchy lead single, “Don’t Wanna Fight”, an upbeat number with a Bee-Gees style chorus. There are slower moments such as soulful ballad “Gimme All Your Love” and the haunting closer, “Over My Head”, making innovative use of vocals in a manner that’s closer to the more modern version of R’n’B than its antecedent namesake with which the band is normally associated. Meanwhile, on “Guess Who” there’s a very nice turn towards sexy, slow funk. “The Greatest” has the band alternating between The Strokes and their more traditional sound, while they are really let off the leash on “Gemini”, with shades of prog rock and psychedelia.
Against the changing soundscape, Howard’s voice, while retaining its distinctive raw power and emotional resonance, also takes on greater depth and variety. It’s a staggering thought that she actually manages to sound better here than on the debut.
Sound & Color is a great album proving that Alabama Shakes are the real deal, an innovative band, pushing themselves to evolve in new and interesting ways.
Sound & Color is out now Rough Trade Records / Remote Control.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor