If there were a prize for biggest development between albums, then Alabama Shakes would surely be 2015’s most triumphant band. This is not to say that their debut Boys & Girls wasn’t a strong debut, just that in terms of sound and tempo it risked being a little too tightly focused, perhaps even one dimensional in its southern rock and soul roots.
True to its title, Sound & Color finds a much wider range of textures and contexts for Brittany Howard’s expressive belter of a voice, with impressive variations in pace, delivery and style. Part of this is no doubt due to having found an empathetic and creative producer in Blake Mills, himself an excellent songwriter and guitarist. Yet his significant input should not negate the role played by Howard and her outstanding band – for Sound & Color grooves righteously, and takes a number of surprising and enlightening detours.
Rather then opening predictably with a burst of gritty guitar, the album is ushered in by rich, hypnotic, jazzy vibraphone chords and a creeping, triplet groove. “A new world hangs outside the window/Beautiful and strange,” sings Brittany Howard (harmonising with herself), a feeling of discovery heightened by the mysterious, erotic, sensory thrill in the music. The bristling, neurotic and slinky Don’t Wanna Fight is an early highlight too – an insistent hook coupled with a feeling of restlessness and a deep, cinematic and nuanced sound that takes it beyond mere funk homage.
Articulation is an important focus here – in terms of the type of sounds the band find to bring out the atmosphere and depth of feeling in the songs. Whilst the lyrics to Future People are somewhat hard to decipher, the title at least hints at science fiction, and the partially muted guitar riffs and fuzzy bass interjections contribute to this atmosphere, with the chanted chorus sounding something like a manifesto. The magnificent Gimme All Your Love (taken at a determinedly slow tempo, but still full of energy and power) creates considerable drama from sudden shifts in volume and attack.
Howard herself proves as malleable as her band here, finding different approaches and ways of singing. She adopts a Curtis Mayfield-inspired falsetto to match the lighter touch to the playing on Guess Who, and finds a voice that is strange and fascinating on the D’Angelo meets Janis Joplin weirdness of Gemini. Sometimes, she deploys a full range of vocal tactics all within the space of one song, moving from a mournful soulfulness at the start of Dunes to a passionate urgency, following the dynamic countours of the song. Howard also revels as much in the small details of life as she does in the details of the music. On Miss You, she begins “I’m gonna miss you/and your Mickey Mouse tattoo”.
There is a danger that this could all prove to be a bit too scattershot – a musical tour through Alabama Shakes’ widening pool of influences. This possibility is more than hinted at with the deranged, punk-ish thrash of The Greatest, an enjoyable enough diversion but one which might be a mischievous side-step too far. Yet the band seems peculiarly unable to sustain the playfulness, instead inserting a subtler passage in the middle.
A couple of moments hint back to the band’s more conventional roots, not least the rugged chug of Shoegaze, but so deft is the band’s handling of more questing musical space that they actually now sound more comfortable on the spacey, modern psychedelia of the closing double act of Gemini and Over My Head. It’s a surprising, hugely satisfying trip from a transformed band.