Alabama Shakes “Sound and Color” Review

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Alabama Shakes just damn near released the best rock album of the year.

Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color” is their sophomore album, but you wouldn’t know it. They sound like veterans, who have earned the right to indulge themselves in whatever they want. They spend most of the album resembling bands that have come before them – anywhere from TV on the Radio, to Citizen Cope, to the MC5. But all the while, aside from a few digressions, they’re a Southern blues-rock band, in total control of their sound. If they want to have fun, they’re damn well going to have some.

The opening song is the title track, a minimalist song based around layered vocals and beats. Intentional or not, it harkens strongly back to TV on the Radio’s opener “I Was a Lover” (from “Return to Cookie Mountain”), as a hushed song that gives the impression that the band could, but isn’t necessarily going to, erupt. The album follows exactly as it’s presented – usually calm and ethereal, but with occasional, noisy flourishes. The second track, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” establishes a smooth guitar line that’s instantly more melodic than the whole previous song. Brittany Howard’s vocals come in as a prolonged squeak, because, why not? Smooth blues vocals are expected to complement the music, and she gets to that point. But fighting the grain is the album’s mission statement.

“Sound and Color” is an album that sounds like it was designed around individual songs, not around an album format. What I mean – take a classic like “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Abbey Road.” Excellent albums, but not every song sounds great when it comes up on shuffle. They’re centered around an album format. Blues (and blues rock) is usually centered around songs, and nearly every track sounds like the band worked out the components that would make it unique. “Dunes” has a quick section where the band gives way to a dissonant pair of acoustic guitars. “Future People” has a synth-y drone in the background that would’ve sent John Lee Hooker to the hospital. Best track “Gimme All Your Love” sounds like an improved version of any song by any boring alt-jam band, occasionally bordering on near-silence. And then it picks up, suddenly, and unexpectedly. And “The Greatest” is a straight, worn punk track, one that sounds like it’s going to have a deceiving, disappointing red herring intro but doesn’t, keeping the energy up for nearly four minutes.

Every member of Alabama Shakes is clearly exceptional. Howard’s voice goes from low and subdued to high and shrieking at any turn. Zac Cockrell’s bass bumps the band through the whole album, more audible than on most rock releases. Heath Fogg’s and Howard’s guitars drive funky, usually melodic but occasionally dissonant rhythms. And Steve Johnson’s drums keep the rhythms afloat, expanding the band’s whole sound. The band occasionally works in group vocals, and sometimes not. Sometimes, they sound like a collective, sometimes they’re supporting one member. But always, they’re laid back and just enjoying what they’re doing. Without the band’s pure enjoyment of the music they’re making, half of the songs on “Sound and Color” would sound unoriginal, played out. But the band seems to understand that they’re playing some pretty hybrid genres, and they roll with it. “Sound and Color” probably isn’t going to be an album we’re looking back on in twenty years, but for an immediate time, it’s a hell of a ride.

Grade: A-

-By Andrew McNally

2 Responses to Alabama Shakes “Sound and Color” Review

  1. […] As with most genres of music, the earliest groundlayers set up limitations and expectations. And with most genres of music, the best acts today are the ones that break all those limitations. Alabama Shakes are the loosest example of “Southern rock” since Neil Young’s noise rock phase, never missing an opportunity to acknowledge a different influence. On their phenomenal sophomore album, they make nods to classic rock, indie and punk. Their sound switches from faint and whispery to full, studio-destroying with each passing track. And most importantly, each member plays off each other and each person gets their moments to shine. It’s a fun band having a great time messing around in the studio, and every moment works because of it. (original review) […]

  2. Keely says:

    As a die hard Neil Young fan, I can say with confidence I will be purchasing many “Sound and Color” CDs through the years just as I have purchased many of Young’s “Decade.” When you love an album so much and your siblings and friends steal them from you, it is called a masterpiece. And if you aren’t listening to “Sound and Color” in your car with the windows rolled down, belting out the vocals and even singing the guitar parts, you aren’t living fully. I have purchased 3 albums so far and have no problem laying down my latte fund to spread this love of sound.

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