At a glance, Alabama Shakes has all the hallmarks of an indie band gone big. The four person group debuted in 2012 with “Boys and Girls” and scored big on record sales and won the adoration of fans (if you are one, you are in the company of Adele and the Obamas). While the band has rock at its roots, the album covered a creepily wide range of genres. Many reviewers took this as a cue to lump the band in with the retro-rock crowd; its music decidedly has hints of soul and the blues.
It is perhaps fitting then that “Sound & Color”, an album three years in the making and the successor to “Boys & Girls”, is deliberately kaleidoscopic in its construction. If the debut album was channelling soul and blues in the veins of Etta James, this new one is more Prince and Marvin Gaye. Diligent listeners might also find some MC5! One category “Sound & Color” definitely does not belong to is “retro-soul”. That road is long gone!
If Alabama Shakes seems to bear the responsibility of carrying forward the legacy of the “Memphis in 1960s” soul in the modern age with their sound in “Boys & Girls”, they sure don’t do so deliberately. It is not that the band does not identify with the symbolism of soul music; all members of the band are from the forgettable town of Athens deep inside the Alabama heartland and have worked their way up the rungs of the music industry. Frontwoman Brittany Howard, who is herself multiracial, born to a white mother and a black father, leads her trio of white instrumentalists, much like the scene in, you guessed it, Memphis in the ‘60s, a city that gave us hits like “Hold On, I’m Coming” in the backdrop of the civil rights movement that was taking America by storm. In a period of immense cultural upheaval, Memphis showed black and white musicians coming together to make powerful music. So it is with total cognizance that the Shakes are wary of being the bearers of the new wave of soul music. As guitarist Heath Fogg opined in 2012, “We just don’t wanna own the classic R&B title and let people down because when we go electric in the next record it might break some hearts.”
The band did not go “electronic” in “Sound & Colour”, but the album is definitely interesting in its sound, to say the least. String arrangements by Rob Moose, who has previously collaborated with the likes of Bon Iver, lend a decidedly eerie undertone to the album. Even regular sounds from the guitars, keyboard, and bass have been worked upon extensively and it shows: the album sounds fresh. The sound is not retro-soul, it is stadium!
The band has experimented with their entire format. Ms Howard takes the centre stage yet again, maximising the range of her register to a pleading, almost opera-esque, tone. Collaborating with co-producer Blake Mills, the vocals in the album are always layered, as if a ghost is singing alone, harmonising. This is of course, all intentional, and Ms Howard’s experience with Christian a cappella hymns shows in the arrangement of her harmonies. For all this production, the album is also quite self-aware; the laughter in the background as Ms Howard passionately exclaims “gimme all your love” can be analysed to no end. However, you can definitely tell that every bit of this album has been crafted with care and intent.
With the lyrics offering far more poise than expected of a 26 year old songwriter, Ms Howard has truly led her little band across the wide seas and offered deliverance from the storms that sinks so many promising outfits. There is still soul and rock in plenty. But retro it is not in any way. The sound is of the here and now; “futuristic” seems applicable only for the great Mr David Bowie. If you were expecting a rehash of “Boys & Girls”, you are going to be sorely disappointed. If you were looking for the revival of new age American soul wrapped in equal parts 21st century grit (which is decidedly different from the kind in the 20th century) and rock, you are definitely in for a treat.
For the best possible experience, listen to the album on vinyl; it just sounds so much better on the format than with traditional digital avenues and certainly better than streaming. You can find the record at The Barbershop Music store.