Alabama Shakes takes risks, makes magic with “Sound & Color”

April 30, 2015, 5:50 p.m.

At first glance, the cover of Alabama Shakes’ new album offers few clues to the music within. Spare, grey and simplistic, it’s at direct odds with the title: “Sound & Color.” But don’t let the album art fool you – this sophomore effort is anything but mundane. Blending the brash, rootsy aesthetic that listeners know and love with well-placed brushstrokes of an atmospheric new sound, the sounds and colors of Alabama Shakes’ latest amount to a visceral and fulfilling listening experience. Though different in many ways from their first album, “Boys & Girls,” “Sound & Color” is no sophomore slump.

Frontwoman Brittany Howard’s vocal talents are on full display in “Sound & Color.” Photo by Fred Rockwood.

The contrast between the band’s latest work and their early releases is immediately apparent in the first track, also titled “Sound & Color.” Opening with a soft, tender series of vibraphone notes, it’s a completely different feel from the straightforward blues-rock we’ve come to expect from favorites like “I Ain’t the Same” and “Hold On.” Frontwoman Brittany Howard, known for her raw, powerful vocals, also delivers the unexpected, blending a tense, upper-range croon with steady drums and ethereal vibes. The effect is dark, textured harmony, a sound that we haven’t yet heard from the Shakes. It’s slightly outside of their roots-rock comfort zone, but it’s just as powerful as their bolder, more straightforward hits.

The new mood continues on later tracks like “Future People,” a stellar cut driven by Heath Fogg’s steady guitar riffs and backing vocals. Blending haunting dissonance with rock-flavored syncopation and high-powered vocals from Howard, it’s the best of the band’s old and new styles, knit together into a sound that vibrates its way into your bones. You know a song is really good when you’re not just hearing it, but feeling it. “Sound & Color” is full of moments like these, and many of them result from the band’s efforts to push their musical boundaries.

However, the elements that drew many listeners to Alabama Shakes in the first place – vulnerable lyrics, crashing blues riffs and, of course, Howard’s irreplaceable vocal talents – are still present throughout “Sound & Color.” The single “Gimme All Your Love” begins introspectively, highlighted by spare drum work from Steve Johnson, then builds into a soulful, desperate plea for affection, driven by flamboyant blues organs and Howard’s smoky yowl.

Her honest, emotional vocals also shine on cuts like “This Feeling,” a bittersweet number highlighted by Fogg’s acoustic guitar, and “Miss You,” a searing neo-soul meditation on a fading relationship. Though the band’s cohesive musicianship is the foundation of their success, it’s Howard’s unique ability to translate pure emotion into song that really makes them special. “Sound & Color” does not over-rely on her talents, but it certainly harnesses them to create powerful, moving music.

In sum, this excellent sophomore effort is the work of a richly talented group of musicians who recognize that they still have room to grow. Building on the roots-rock style that they mastered on “Boys & Girls,” Alabama Shakes is wading into uncharted waters, sampling genres from soul to folk to progressive rock. Playing with complex harmonies, unconventional meters and bold rhythm, they embrace the risks that come with a more atmospheric, experimental sound. Luckily, they have the musical chops to pull it all off. The result is a captivating album that blends the best and bluesiest aspects of their previous work with some beautiful new directions. Just when we thought Alabama Shakes couldn’t get better, they did.

Contact Clare Flanagan at ckflan ‘at’ 

Clare Flanagan is a desk editor and writer for the Music beat. A former band geek, she specializes in popular music and new releases. Clare is a sophomore from Edina, Minn. considering majors in Psychology or English. To contact her, please email [email protected].

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