#45. Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color

On Alabama Shakes’ first album Boys & Girls, they broke into the big leagues as a likable roots rock band with plenty of mainstream appeal. Their song “Hold On” helped propel them to early stardom and gather a sizable following. It was a successful debut, and on Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes dodge the sophomore slump and sidestep the risk of monotony by stepping into a different lane altogether.

The band’s second album expands their signature roots rock sound and colors it with much more nuance. The most prominent new hue that’s introduced to their palette is a sprinkle of psychedelia. You can hear it in Brittany Howard’s reverb-saturated vocals as she sings about the moon and other planets on “Gemini.” “Don’t Wanna Fight No More” pushes their rock repertoire into shadowy new corners, as syncopated electric guitars lay down a compelling riff beneath lyrics about a crumbling, hostile relationship. Just before the first verse begins, the band drops out and Brittany Howard lets out a chill-inducing squeal that sets the tone for the song’s restless anguish, singing how she “can’t get no relief,” and asking “why can’t I catch my breath?” By the end of the track the squeal has turned into a full-blown scream as she wails the refrain repeatedly until all the fight finally leaves her voice.

As this review has already begun to demonstrate, all roads lead to Brittany Howard’s resonant voice when you’re writing about Alabama Shakes. It’s the defining characteristic of this beloved roots rock band’s sound, and it’s also one of the most instantly recognizable voices to come to prominence in the past several years. She’s so flexible that she can take anything from a delicate falsetto line, to a scratchy whisper, to a growling bellow, and make it her own. Howard is so at home singing good old-fashioned upbeat rock and roll on “The Greatest” that she created an entire rock and roll side project this year under the persona Thunderbitch. But she can also dart nimbly between rock and soul and blues without breaking a sweat. “This Feeling” is an acoustic guitar ballad that lets her prove definitively that she has just as much of a mastery over the quiet stuff as she does over the loud.

Howard’s vocal flexibility and the rest of the band’s experimentation with new, bolder sounds are highlighted on the album’s title track. It starts with a limpid extended vibraphone intro that gives way to arguably the most ethereal, far-out track on the album. In the opening line Howard sings, “a new world hangs outside the window / beautiful and strange.” She could easily be singing about Sound & Color, and the exciting new possibilities the album opens up for the band’s sound as they move forward.