April 23, 2015

TEST SPIN: Alabama Shakes—Sound & Color

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We learned that Alabama Shakes knew how to play Memphis soul and southern blues rock — and play it well — on their 2012 debut, Boys & Girls. We learned frontwoman Brittany Howard had a tour-de-force, hurricane of a voice and we learned that these kids from Nowhere, Alabama had a gritty, aw-shucks charisma and an old-soul-meets-modern-rock sound that earned them gushing accolades and a Grammy in the same year.

It was unclear, however, whether the fledgling group would find a coherence beyond the gorgeous shock value of Howard’s shrieks and croons and the novelty of a niche throwback sound in this musical climate. Their latest release, Sound & Color, seems to settle this question; Alabama Shakes are more than niche; they are more than a novelty.

The album shimmies between decades and genres, sampling from soul, groove-rock, gospel, blues, punk, electric rock, bluegrass and folk; embracing motifs and honoring the traditions that so evidently inform their sound from each genre, but executing their own creative, and exciting forms of them. The creative spectrum of the record finds cohesion in its chaos — no song sounds like another, but somehow each track leads fittingly into the next.

Classic rock track “Shoegaze” evokes Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones while punk-infused “The Greatest” reeks of The Strokes. “Dunes” is a tambourine-shaking, psychedelic, Dr. Dog-ish number, while on standout tracks “Miss You” and “Don’t Wanna Fight,” Howard switches between howling like Janis Joplin and crooning like Etta James, with the latter track featuring a Bee Gees-esque chorus riff. Acoustic, soft, guitar-patting “This Feeling” is a welcome break from the power rock, gospel and soul of the rest of the album. Title track “Sound & Color’s” layering of breathy experimental gospel over lounging southern rock with swelling strings proves to be colorful indeed. Finally, “Gemini” takes us back to a bluesy era of funk that feels just a bit long-winded and out of place at six minutes long.

As it should, the album centers around and caters to Howard’s cacophonous, mighty voice. And while on Boys & Girls it seemed that sometimes her belt would crescendo to a blindly forceful climax, on Sound & Color, it is visible that she has found complete control over her powerful vocals. We see her range from falsetto to playful raspy croon, to primal scream, to softer cadences and registers. And of course, her ability to fill her words unbridled emotion and cracking heartbreak is unparalleled by most of her peer vocalists. However, while the album might sell for its vocals, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockerell and drummer Steve Johnson are more than just background music for Howard, clearly possessing great mastery of the homegrown roots rock; warm foot-tapping big bass lines and taught guitar riffs make them heard behind the vocals.

The Shakes do not sacrifice quality of their lyrics for their composition, or merely fill up blank cliches with their huge sound. The tracks are filled with candid heartbreak and clever cheek, like, “I don’t know whose turn it it / I don’t know whose fuck to give,” and often, there is such affecting warmth in her voice that she doesn’t need to say much more than a simple line like, “And it feels so nice / to know I’m gonna be alright.” It’s an album making sense of itself, marveling at life’s idiosyncratic joys and seeking comfort from turmoil and stresses. It’s light, human stuff, but not trivial, and a relatable invitation to the listener to join Alabama Shakes in their celebration or agonizing.

Sound & Color is an electrifying and creative album, offering the same anthemic roots rock and recapturing of Memphis sound that made us fall in love with the Alabama Shakes on Boys & Girls, and more. The group plays around with their own huge talent, taking risks, funneling it into different mediums and trying on different genres. There’s nothing kitschy or token, nothing gimmicky or ironic about their gospel or their blues, and they package their revival sound into modern rock and roll that is more exciting that pretty much any other drums-and-guitar-based rock being made at the moment.

Jael Goldfine is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Objectivity Bites appears alternate Thursdays this semester.