Arts & Entertainment, High Notes

Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color

I’ve been a champion of Alabama Shakes ever since I got an advance copy of their 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, and I have spent the last three years tirelessly turning as many people onto them as possible. And with good reason….they are a phenomenal band. Evoking the southern-fried soul of Stax/Volt, and a fair shake of Muscle Shoals, with a slightly understated modern twist, the Shakes are able to make something familiar sound more fresh than just about anything else on the music scene today. So, obviously, I have been very eagerly awaiting a follow-up…and it has been a hell of a wait, as the Shakes toured the world, milking the success of their debut, all the while getting tighter and more sophisticated as a band. But that wait is over – FINALLY – the new Alabama Shakes album is here. And it’s about freaking time.

Now, you might ask….was the wait worth it?

As I sit here, listening to Sound & Color for the very first time, I must admit that I am not entirely sure. It’s not that I am all that disappointed but I also am not knocked off my feet like I was after hearing their first album. That said, I think Sound & Color is a really remarkable set of songs, performed by a group that has really jelled into a formidable unit. My issue, petty as it may be, is that while this album is the result of a massive amount of growth…it’s too much. Yes, the problem with this album is that it is just too damn good. But it’s also missing something…and what that is, I don’t quite know.

There are a lot of slow songs on this album, a much more pronounced soul vibe, and far more focus on Brittany Howard’s voice…and she does sound phenomenal. She is definitely on point to be one of the great singers of our time. But I prefer when the Shakes are rocking and grooving and moving the room and instead they seem to be aiming for the ethereal. Where the first album made you want to drink, it seems this album makes you want to get stoned instead. It’s that kind of chilled out record and that has as much to do with the production as with the songs themselves. The production is far denser than before, more layered, more sophisticated. There are lots of little things going on in the background and this seems to be the kind of album where you’ll end up hearing something different every time you spin it. So, yeah, it does win points for that.

“Don’t Wanna Fight” is a strong track and was a wise choice for a lead single, but there is nothing as immediate as “Hold On”, “Heartbreaker”, or “Hang Loose”, though Brittany’s raspy yowl at the beginning of “Don’t Wanna Fight” is spot-on and that groove does make you want to dance. The rest of the songs on this album are growers, I think. That is not to say that I don’t like them. They just don’t sound as flawless or as natural as those on the first album. It almost sounds like there is some huge missing link between this album and Boys & Girls….and I think that is what is making this album so jarring for me. This would be a far more successful third album, I think.

Now, if I were the boss of this band, they would have quickly knocked out a second album in 2013, with stuff like “Always Alright”, and other songs that you can only find on bootlegs. They could have made one ass-kicking blowout of a second album and toured that for a bit, and then made this album. Their growth chart would make more sense. Sound & Color is exactly the album I would expect this band to make in 2015, there is no doubt about that…I just feel that there should have been an album, or at least an EP, in between these two releases. Perhaps then this artistic jump wouldn’t feel so drastic.

Having said all that, I must remember that this is the first of what will be at least a hundred spins through this album and I am sure that my opinion will change a great deal once I get used to it. Because, yeah, this is a strong, dynamic collection of songs and this album sounds like nothing else on the scene today and, honestly, this will probably end up in my year-end best-of list, and probably that of every other critic under the sun. This album debuted at #1 in Billboard and it is most deserving of that notation. The songs themselves might not be as instantly memorable as those on the first album but the Shakes are really pushing their own boundaries and they are showing immeasurable growth and that is a sure fire sign of a great band. My own real worry is that they will end up killing themselves trying to top this. This is a band that I want to see go for the long haul, and not end up being merely a platform for Brittany Howard’s career. Or, worse yet, some kind tragic, cautionary-tale-worthy flameout. They need to pace themselves.

My last gripe has nothing to do with the music but with the practice of issuing three-sided double albums. There is a blank side of vinyl that would be perfect for some bonus tracks (and when you take three years to make your second album, you know you’ve got more than 12 songs in the can). Instead you end up with a back-third of an album that no one ends up listening to.  Fortunately, those who slap that one-sided disc on their table are rewarded with a phenomenal three-song finale, including the sinister epic, “Gemini”. Whoa!

Okay that is it, no more gripes. I am going to sit back and spin this album again. And I’m gonna dig it.

Written by: Chris Anderson

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