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Review: Alabama Shakes Can’t Be Tamed on the Ripping ‘Sound and Color’

Alabama Shakes
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: April 21, 2015
Label: ATO

Alabama Shakes epitomize what a rock band should be in this era, mostly for what they lack. Confidence oozes out of every note that pours from singer Brittany Howard’s mouth, but it doesn’t translate to a big-headed ego. And most importantly, they manage to channel a spectrum of musical influences, from Southern soul to glam-rock, without retreading the well-worn paths that others are content to glide on. On their second full-length, Sound and Color, Alabama Shakes aren’t even comfortable following in their own footsteps, as successful as they were — and this time around, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockerell, and drummer Steve Johnson let the world know that they’re more than just a backing band for a powerful set of pipes.

Opening with the dulcet tones of an organ and hints of falsetto on the title track, you get the sense that Howard is just warming up, working through her impressive range and flexing her muscles, so to speak. Her boisterous voice, inarguably the sparkling lure that hooked listeners on 2012’s Boys and Girls, is as present as ever, but noticeably muted at times. It seems like an odd choice to make to bury something so precious under layers of effects, but it proves they needn’t rely on Howard’s wild force to succeed.

“Don’t Wanna Fight,” the defiant first single, opens with a primal scream so raw you can practically feel the muscles in Howard’s neck straining to unleash it. But the fat bass lines and taut riffs vibrate with self-assuredness as well, a sign that her bandmates are making their presence known alongside her, supplicating with flourishes of vibraphone, keys, and strings.

This album casts Howard as a woman trying making sense of the dizzying peaks and valleys of love. “All I really want is peace of mind / Why is everything so complicated? / Why is everyone so infatuated?” she sings on “Guess Who.” Howard’s romantic turmoil and pleasure is something relatable and comforting to listeners who are looking for someone to give meaning and form to their own struggles (just add “relatability” to the long list of reasons why we want to be Howard’s BFF).

Through moments of riotous, punk-infused bravado (“The Greatest”) and flowery, romantic ballads (“Gemini”), Sound and Color follows a steady rhythm of ups and downs that quickly becomes predictable, as if the band needs to take a breather between punches. The desire to show subtlety and restraint is quickly overtaken by their visceral need to go buck wild (“Gimme All Your Love” is the best example of that roller coaster). While that pacing becomes a crack in the album’s otherwise polished veneer, it can easily be overlooked once you’re sucked in by all of the sounds and colors. Rather than resting on the laurels of our expectations, Alabama Shakes manage to make roots-rock a surprise again.