Alabama Shakes silences their doubters on their second album Sound & Color. Since their debut album, the band’s skills have grown, taking them from being a throwback southern blues-rock band to… well something a bit more experimental but a lot more powerful. But while “experimental” has killed sophomore albums by many artists, Alabama Shakes took the opportunity to broaden their palette without losing focus of the sound that made them popular in the first place.
The title song which leads off the album starts with gentle vibraphones. Not what we might expect. The band co-produces the album with Blake Mills, a change from Boys & Girls where the band co-produced with Andrija Tokic. The vintage sixties production style remains a constant even with the change of producer. It is obvious the band prefers mixing their vocals this way. I’ve always felt it is such a contrast to their live performances, which don’t hold back on the audio quality. “Sound & Color” is a ballad which, comparing the lyrics with the video the band has produced, seems to be about waking up, stranded in space with no chance for human contact. The beauty of the heavens in stark contrast to absolute isolation. It is almost like starting the album with a lullaby until you pick up on the lyrics. Drummer Steve Johnson knows exactly what to play and what not to play, which sometimes is one of the best qualities a drummer can have. The album kicks into gear with the first single “Don’t Wanna Fight”, a song that shows off the bluesy funky side of the band. Brittany lets out a squeal that exudes the urgency of what she has to say. The song is about our need to stop squabbling and instead try to agree to be different. Like many of us, she’s tired of the argumentative nature of our society these days. This song didn’t immediately grab me on the first listen like “Hold On” did, rather being “good but…interesting”. Several weeks later, it is one of my favorites by the band.
“Dunes” has a slowed down but very funky drum leading it through, where Brittany is simply singing about losing from dealing with people’s problems and singing “I don’t know whose fuck to give”. This one probably has the heaviest oldies mixing on the production, but has a lot of layers buried in it musically once it builds up, much like more complex Beatles tracks. “Future People”, the song released so far as a 7″ single for the collectors, is where Brittany imagines in a falsetto we haven’t really heard that it would be a better benefit if she had the choice to meet herself in the future and to know what’s ahead than to meet friends she’s lost, as many others might wish if they were granted such a wish. Bassist Zac Cockrell goes for a really fuzz tone here rather than traditional bass.
Next is one of the standouts, “Give Me All Your Love”. Brittany wrings every once of energy she can out of her voice in this song, jumping from the gentle to the intense and back. It’s songs like this that prove her to be one of recent rock music’s most powerful voices. Guitarist Heath Fogg (the one that is basically a fuzzball/beard continuum holding a guitar) pulls off some fiery soulful soloing here. The band is truly at their best as a band here with a goosebump-inducing performance. “This Feeling” follows, a gentle acoustic-based song about finally finding some happiness and not letting anyone take that away. “Guess Who” delves a bit deeper into classic r&b/soul territory. The production and the strings added to it do make this one sound like it came from the late 60s or early 70s. Its simplicity make it work though. “The Greatest” is Alabama Shakes being as punk rock as the band could probably get and still be themselves. This dizzying song will no doubt be a highlight of their live shows. Brittany sings “I know you ain’t out there tryin’ to be me baby!”. “Shoegaze” is an aptly titled song, weighing the highs of social life, in this case probably meeting the band’s fans, versus the isolation of being alone in the downtime. This one has a funky southern rock feel reminiscent of Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” or “Beast of Burden”. The band comes together and shines in the instrumental moments on this one.
The third side of the three-sided vinyl kicks off with “Miss You”, where Brittany goes full on soul ballad. “I’m gonna miss you… and your Mickey Mouse tattoo!”, she starts off gently before launching into a chill-inducing ballad that sears into heart-wrenching pleading and near-screaming of Janis Joplin caliber. I think this one is my favorite of the album. “Gemini” follows, being the longest track on the album at just of six and a half minutes. It starts of sparse and is a metaphorical love song about finding one’s cosmic match. It is the song on the album that takes some patience at first, as it crawls along at the beginning, but slowly the band adds layers like a fuzz-guitar solo. This definitely falls on the “experimental” side of the new material. The album closes with the gentle ballad “Over My Head”, with some perfectly placed vintage sounding keyboard from Ben Tanner, and quite an interesting drum pattern from Steve Johnson once the song picks up steam. It’s a nice relaxing way to end a really powerful album.
Not only did I pick this up on vinyl (it is three sided, with the fourth being blank, on clear vinyl), but I bought the special edition CD at Target as well. This contains a bonus disc, Live at The Artists Den. It gives you three more tracks, including powerful and in my opinion superior live versions of “Give Me All Your Love” and “The Greatest”, as well as the unreleased live staple “Joe”, a soul ballad with what sounds like church organ. The song is worth going through the trouble of finding the special edition.
Sound & Color is the kind of album that opens up to me just a bit more with each listen, and draws me in just a bit closer. The writing and the performance on this album is very human and very warm. I have no doubt that over time this album will stick with me. It has all the right qualities for the lasting power of a classic.
Pick up your copy of Sound & Color HERE:
Check out some videos and performances from the album:
“Sound & Color”:
“Don’t Wanna Fight” (Live on SNL):
“Give Me All Your Love” (Live on SNL):
“Future People” (Live at Coachella):
“Miss You” (Live Fan Footage – London 2/19/15):