Jesus preached against wasting your five talents, and Alabama Shakes has ten or twenty to spare. The first and foremost is the big, bellowing set of pipes on lead singer Brittany Howard, but that still leaves quite a handful that the band chose not to bury on their new album, “Sound & Color.”
The popular reaction to their 2012 debut “Boys & Girls” was “That girl can SING,” and the breakout hit “Hold On” boasted the kind of heart-wrenching, soul-summoned belting that you can’t learn in music school. Plenty of fans would be happy to follow a long career of singles trying to match that one chorus, but there is a lot to admire about Alabama Shakes that wasn’t appreciated as much if you didn’t dive into the rest of their material.
Their roots rock compositions manage to sound like an honest golden age to indie kids and old folks alike, and every song thrives when they play it live. The studio guidance of Blake Mills does the magic of bottling that energy and making every instrument heard at the right times, a task sometimes ignored on “Boys & Girls.” These strengths are fine-tuned on the new batch of songs, with That Big Ol’ Voice worked in as a prominent but not primary feature. Out of virtue or stubbornness, the group made a point of not becoming “Brittany Howard and the Shakes,” and the choice materialized into one class act of a sophomore album.
Though “Hold On” moments are scarce, all the tension when Howard is revving up to full power is almost as rewarding as the payoff. See the verses of “Gimme All Your Love,” where the tenderness of Etta James gives way to the howl of Robert Plant. See the tea-kettle squeal she fires as a warning shot for glory notes to come as the album is just kicking off on “Don’t Wanna Fight” (the first track is more of a trippy prelude, time for the listener to crack open a beer). For most singers, that throaty note wouldn’t even count as singing. For Brittany Howard, it’s a deliciously rock ‘n roll show of restraint.
The rock showcase doesn’t end there by a long shot, either. Every wavelength on the Shakes’ spectrum of influences gets put to work somewhere in a prism that scatters from funk to grunge. A hot kick of punk nostalgia on “The Greatest” runs right into a Temptations-style soul chorus. The Janis Joplin shades on “Miss You” make for the kind of love ballad that leaves you bruised in a shallow ditch. And of course, the hearts of Southern blues bands are dutifully represented by the swinging grooves of “Shoegaze” and “Dunes.” There’s always a fear that a distinctive band like this one has only one trick up their sleeve, but they just keep pulling that rainbow cloth and not telling where it comes from.
“Guess Who” is another spot that takes some pride in Alabama, strolling through a hall of the simple things in life and picking them out like candy. “People say I look just like my daddy / Cause I doo-o-oo,” Howard hums without a care. The songwriting is a refreshing break from the all-or-nothing declarations that get a crowd on their feet, wisely placed right at the halfway mark of the album.
Lyrics often get lost when it comes to Alabama Shakes, who prefer a core, relatable meaning, but “Sound & Color” doesn’t get lazy with words. “I’m gonna miss you. . . and your Mickey Mouse tattoo” is a line from that implants in your memory on first listen of “Miss You”, and continues to share the vivid details: “. . .and you’ll be leaving in your Honda Accord.” The message of “This Feeling” closely resembles “Hold On,” but it’s not nearly as embellished, letting a soft reading do what a scream and shout could in a different mood or under a different moon.
“Gemini” spins a Southern creation myth with Adam and Eve washing up on the gulf and nourishing themselves on “the honey of the Tennessee.” The story gets sliced open and abducted by an eerie guitar drone, one of the Shakes’ most adventurous choices, and one that takes up a good chunk of their longest song to date. Again and again, the Shakes are maddeningly casual about their ability to make any style feel like it was invented in Muscle Shoals. You would think Pink Floyd grew up on sweet tea and barbecue.
Another song that lands a distance from their comfort zone, “Future People,” is a highlight thanks to the catchiest of all the melodies here and a lightning-powered bass line. The whole track is surprisingly plugged in, and the upper register of Howard’s voice lets the spacey vibe lift you away from the earthy essence that defines their usual sound. Again, the hand of Blake Mills is felt polishing the nooks and crannies, taming that festival-rocking sound into something ready for alternative radio. The layered vocals sound a little like arena anthem-indie, but in the most sincere way that it can be done. The same could be said of “Over My Head” when it fades out the album with a bright chirping chorus of Howard’s own voice, but no one could accuse her of overselling the emotion of a song; the passion is always real. It gets on you like dust in the air.
If you’re one of the many, many people who have seen Alabama Shakes play live and were hopelessly blown away, you can finally own an album that matches that energy. If you had any concerns that electronic bleeps and bloops had buried rock music for good, you can rejoice that the most exciting stuff out right now was made by a little band from Alabama with a truck driver turned mail lady for a singer. If your heart was stolen by this gang of misfits, you’re in a groovy majority.
“Sound & Color” is available everywhere via ATO Records, MapleMusic Recordings and Rough Trade Records.

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