Alabama Shakes’ new album, “Sound & Color.” is one of the boldest second albums in recent years, taking the fairly straightforward (but stirring) blues and soul rooted rock of the group’s debut, “Boys & Girls,” and turning it on its ear with a host of stylistic twists and an adventurous approach to the sonics of the music.
Some hints of more of a modernist – and unique — approach the blues,
soul and rock were present on “Boys & Girls,” but “Sound & Color” makes it clear the Alabama Shakes aren’t out to be Muddy Waters revivalists.
As inventive and daring as the second album sounds, Alabama Shakes drummer Steve Johnson said there was little that was planned or calculated about the way the music developed.
“We weren’t learning our parts, getting them all dialed in and going in (to the studio) with an idea of what we were going to do,” Johnson said in a recent phone interview. “It was very in the moment, you know, and improvised and just natural. However it was coming out was how we were hearing it at the time.”
Alabama Shakes came into the second album being hailed as one of the
most exciting new bands to have come
on the scene in recent years. Formed in Athens, Alabama in 2009 by singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, guitarist
Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and Johnson.
By 2011, the group has released a four-song self-titled EP and been the subject of a rave review in the “New York Times” for its performance at the CMJ Music Festival that fall. A month later, the
band was signed by ATO Records. The buzz around the band was already
building by the time “Boys & Girls” was released in spring 2012. Then the critical acclaim translated into commercial success as the single, “Hold On,” topped the adult alternative singles chart and the album was certified gold with sales eventually topping 700,000 copies.
This set the stage for “Sound & Color” and more great expectations.
The innovative and adventurous direction of “Sound & Color,” though, didn’t emerge right away. In fact, the group began the path to the album with a couple of sessions that didn’t bear fruit.
“First we had like a couple of demos we had done in other studios.” Johnson said. “Like we went back with Andrija (Tokic), who helped engineer and co-produce a couple of songs on ‘Boys and Girls,’ we went back and demoed like an early version of ‘Miss You’ and ‘Gimmee All Your Love’ at his place. And it didn’t have the same, I don’t know,
the songs, structurally they weren’t there yet. The sound wasn’t there.
“Then we tried some other songs at Tommy Brenneck’s studio in Brooklyn,”
he said. “He does stuff with Budos Band and Charles Bradley. So we did an early version of ‘Joe’ and this song called ‘Heat Lightning,’ which didn’t make the record. His sound was very, very Dap-Tone and very soul. And that’s cool, but that’s very much their thing. We had bigger ambitions than that. We didn’t want to sound exactly like we’re copping their style or anything like that because it’s not our thing. It’s an influence of ours, but it’s not our thing.”
Next, Alabama Shakes decided to head to Nashville and work with producer Blake Mills. That’s when something fresh happened.
“We went there and then we recorded ‘Gemini’ right out of the gate. That was the first song that we tracked,” Johnson said. “So immediately there was a tone for the album and a mood and everything.”
Another song that came together early in the session with Mills, according to Johnson, was “Gimme All Your Love,” the track that didn’t gel with Tokic.
“There was an early demo like at Andreija’s, and the parts weren’t, they weren’t really there yet. The idea was,” Johnson said. “The idea was definitely there, but it hadn’t locked in yet. Then when we started working with Blake, Blake had a couple of ideas to emphasize
certain parts and make them feel like a statement rather than just a part in the song, I guess, something that was going to get drilled Into somebody’s head, making it pop.
“We tracked it a few times,” Johnson said. “And he (Mills) would make comments here and there, like ‘You’re thinking about it too much. I can tell when you’re playing that everything is very calculated right now. You’re thinking. Just quit thinking. Just do it. You’ve played the song before. Just feel it out.’ Then we were able to get a really good take of it.”
Several other songs then came together during that session with Mills,
and work on “Sound & Color” stretched out for about a year as the band and its producer chased its adventurous vision. But Johnson said the band knew “Give Me All Your Love” was a standout.
“That song, it’s always been pretty much a powerhouse,” Johnson said.
“The vocal delivery on it is just straight from the gut, in your face, howling. I mean, it’s evident when we play live how powerful it is because it stops people, like boom.”
Johnson knows “Sound & Color” may not connect immediately with fans of
the first album as well as newcomers to the music of Alabama Shakes.
“To me, it’s a very emotional, spacey ride, I guess,” Johnson said.
“There’s a lot of types of songs that aren’t immediate to a listener, that don’t immediately pull them in. You might have to listen to it a few times and then over that period of time, certain things kind of
jump out at you that you didn’t hear before. I think this is definitely one of those kinds of albums.”
Johnson said it’s taken a little time for Alabama Shakes to translate the songs from “Sound & Color” for live performance and to get dialed in on the best way to perform the material.
“ I would say it’s extremely fun to play,” Johnson said of the new album. “It’s really rewarding whenever it sounds good. Like when everybody is on point and really locked in. But it is challenging as well. It’s something we kind of have to be working at constantly, even on time off of the road. We’ve got to stay brushed up.”
The band is also enjoying having two full albums of material to play, making it easier to fill a headlining set.
“So far we’ve been playing all of the new material, and still putting in some of the stuff from ‘Boys & Girls’ in there,” Johnson said. Our set lists are longer now. We were only playing like 60 minutes. Now we’re playing 90 minutes and trying to put as much of the new material in as possible.”

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.