First Impressions: Alabama Shakes, “Sound & Color”

shakes“The Greatest” starts with Brittany Howard counting it off and ends with her cackling in glee, and in between she and the rest of Alabama Shakes slash and burn as though on board a runaway locomotive of rock and roll kinesis, the whole thing not quite sludgy or lo-fi but reveling in a certain roughness, Howard’s voice buried deeper in the mix than normal—a bold move for a band endowed with such a powerhouse singer—and the guitars skirting with the red. It’s representative of the rest of Sound & Color, not in its sound—the record devotes more time to slower songs and limber funk workouts than to brassy rock and roll—but in spirit: Sound & Color is the work of a group that is, I imagine, dynamite in concert but focused here on the possibilities of the studio, of songcraft, of—yes—sound and color, much of it provided by the great producer Blake Mills, who has a way of making the whole affair sound charmingly off-the-cuff and ragged even when he’s adding string accents and other studio effects. And that, too, is characteristic of the album, which has a rambling energy and a gritty sound that masks how assured and risky it is in its compositions and its craft. It’s got a lot going on, whether it’s the band riding a tight groove in “Don’t Wanna Fight” or dipping into country for a song called “Shoegaze,” connecting with the mothership on “Gemini” and discarding guitars altogether for the title song, on which Howard perches atop a bed of chimes and bells and keyboard tones. The album has been called weird, which is perhaps just another way of saying that it’s got character and balls, but it swings and swaggers enough that it’s never alienating or off-putting. (“I wanna touch a human being,” Howard sings in the opening title song, and she goes: This is an album made for connection and emotional availability.) For all these signifiers and doors into the record, though, what’s most telling may be what isn’t here, at least not much: On “Gimme All Your Love” the song slow-burns to an explosive vocal eruption from Howard, an old trick the band could fall back on song after damn song if they weren’t too intoxicated by the discovery of new ones.


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