Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color (ATO)
There’s one good reason—and only one—why, in 2011, this band shot from obscurity to festival headliner in the space of a year: the voice of Brittany Howard. This now-25-year-old sounds like a woman at least twice her age and steeped in Southern traditions of gospel and blues. That she is a woman of colour playing electric guitar and fronting a white rock band stands out all the more in the incredibly segregated world of American music. Of course she’s going to turn heads. That she looks like a nerdy librarian while testifying like Otis Redding sets her even further apart.
And yet what we heard on the 2012 debut, Boys and Girls, was sadly unremarkable: no better or worse than any local bar band.
That’s changed. Big time. Sound and Color is an immense leap forward on every level: almost a complete reinvention, a revelation by a group far more eclectic than they had previously let on.
Considering Howard’s star wattage, she no doubt faced external pressure to ditch the dudes and go it alone. Thank god she didn’t: years of touring have developed an incredible chemistry, a genuine understanding of interplay and dynamics. They’re also simply better as technical players, especially drummer Steve Johnson. Listen to “Give Me All Your Love”—which on the one hand is one of the most astounding vocal performances you’re likely to hear this year, in which a wailing Howard could make Robert Plant weep like a baby—where every instrument’s role is as integral in the song’s emotional heft.
Sound and Color opens with the sound of—wait a minute, what? Vibraphone and upright bass. Then, over a slow, syncopated beat and a string section, Howard slips into a sonic rapture, emulating Prince and Al Green, singing about synaesthesia and sounding splendorous while doing so. It’s slow-burn, psychedelic soul, and it’s your first clue that this is not a garage rock record.
The punchy second track, “I Don’t Want To Fight,” starts the party proper. It sounds like something Jack White would produce for Amy Winehouse, until the beat drops and Howard enters with a high, pained rasp—not unlike Janis Joplin, the singer to whom she’s most often compared, somewhat inexplicably. (Bluesy woman fronting a rock band? Apparently there was only ever one.) But it’s a dodge: Howard’s not going there. For starters, she’s not a one-trick pony. Her voice explores masculine depths and what sounds like soaring falsetto—many of the slow jams here owe some debts to fellow Southern soul space cadets D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. She snarls like the Strokes on “The Greatest”; she slinks like Norah Jones on “This Feeling.” Is there anything she can’t do?
The music keeps you guessing: just when you think it’s going to be an R&B record, some Southern rock takes over. Just when you think it’s going to be ballad-heavy, a rave-up comes next. On the penultimate track “Gemini,” things get downright spacey and trippy for more than six minutes, like a Funkadelic deep cut, culminating in a fuzzed-out, droning guitar solo.
The album closes with Howard singing about how she’s “loving so deeply I’m in over my head.” It’s hard to imagine how a woman this massively talented fronting a band this good could ever be in anything over her head. Full control, full confidence, moving forward.
Download: “Don’t Want To Fight,” “Guess Who,” “Give Me All Your Love”