Sound — 9
After releasing their first record, "Boys & Girls" (which I loved), I was curious where the Alabama Shakes would head sonically. Given that their style was a essentially a modern interpretation of '50s soul and blues music, I feared they may not be able to create a sophomore record that was truly theirs. Live performances of new songs such as "Heavy Chevy" and "Heat Lightning" after the first record's release did little to assuage my fears. Those songs were great, but sounded like "Boys & Girls" B-sides.
Enter "Sound & Color," the Shakes' new record and statement of their unique identity. This album, simply put, is fantastically strange. The songs vary from the James Brown influenced "Don't Wanna Fight" to the ethereal, Radiohead-esque "Future People." "The Greatest" has a frantic, almost punk, tempo with some fantastic dynamic changes that showcase the Shakes' songwriting skills. The quiet acoustic guitars on "This Feeling" contrast sharply with the powerful, fuzzed-out tones on the chorus of "Gimme All Your Love." Diversity is the name of the game for "Sound & Color," squashing any fear of a "sophomore slump."
Another notable difference (and improvement, I argue) between the two records is the production style. The production on "Boys & Girls" was barebones and reflective of the group's humble beginnings. On "Sound & Color," the production is much more expansive. The drums sound digital at times, or at least sound like they have digital overdubs. The beginning of "Guess Who" is a great example of this. The rich, multilayered harmonies on "Future People" are one of the biggest departures from the band's first record. The huge, sawtooth keyboard sounds on the chorus are a far cry from the minimalist guitar tones found on "Boys & Girls." "Dunes" is another song with notable production. The outro consists of the band playing the same riff for about a minute, as the tones of all the instruments become more squashed, with a creepy piano overdub becoming more prevalent in the mix as the instruments decay. Every song on the album, whether it be funky or relaxed, has this psychedelic, dreamlike quality. This provides a unifying thread, making "Sound & Color" a true album rather than a collection of songs.
Lyrics — 9
Vocally, Britanny Howard continues to amaze. She's a commanding frontwoman with one of the most powerful voices I've heard in a long time. Clearly influenced by the soul and R&B greats that came before her, and yet somehow distinct and hard to categorize. Her voice is such a pure conduit for her emotions. Listening to her belt out the chorus of "Gimme All Your Love" is a captivating experience. One thing that's impressed me the most is her ability to recreate her studio vocal tones in a live setting. Backup singers are of course necessary given the number of vocal harmonies, but they never overshadow Howard's voice. If the Shakes' performances for NPR and several others are any indication, they'll have no problem bringing to a live setting the same fullness and richness that we hear in the studio version.
Howard excels as a lyricist as well. Her lyrics are almost as varied in style as the music itself. They range from vulnerable and personal to fierce and independent. As the Shakes have shown us that they're multifaceted musicians, Howard as shown us that she's a multifaceted individual.
Overall Impression — 9
Overall, there isn't a single song I dislike on this record. Some, such as "Shoegaze," may be less memorable, but overall every song brings something fresh and exciting to the table. 2015 is poised to be a great year for music, and the Shakes are playing no small role in that. They've staked their claim in modern music. "Sound & Color" is simultaneously a summer cruising album, and a quiet, contemplative bedroom listening experience. As the Alabama Shakes rise in popularity, they give me new hope for popular music. If a '50s soul revivalist-turned psychedelic rock and R&B group can sell out theaters across the country, who can say what will happen next?