Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes
An infusion of country, blues, folk and soul, the genre “roots rock” is aptly titled because its name has as many connotations as it does subgenres. The word “root” more ostensibly signifies foundation, origin, beginnings, permanence and aspects of life that lie below the surface, existing as long as they remain unseen. “Root” evokes the past, or an inability to break away from old memories and the nagging scars of heartbreak, guilt, regret and nostalgia. But “root” can also mean the opposite of permanence. Roots change and grow; they stretch and forge their own paths through unfamiliar and stifling soil. “Root,” then, connotes a reinterpretation, an expansion, an exceeding and furthering of self.
In its new album Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes does brilliant justice to every connotation of roots rock. Released last April, the album was awaited with much anticipation after the Grammy-award-winning success and popularity of the band’s 2013 debut album Boys & Girls. What is most astonishing about the new album is frontwoman Brittany Howard’s ability to reinvent, modernize and make relevant the band’s sound while still paying homage to American roots by synthesizing R&B, hard rock, folk and soul. The self-made Alabama band clearly has no swollen ego after the critical acclaim of 2013 and is instead staying true to self while forging ahead with a more sophisticated sound.
Sound & Color holds remnants of the band’s old self-assured, sassy audacity, with percussive guitar that evokes Creedence Clearwater Revival or Jimi Hendrix. Indeed, Brittany Howard still sings with a voice as soaring and ponderous as Aretha Franklin’s while as growly and ferocious as Big Mama Thornton’s. But where the 2013 album is joyous, bold, upbeat and redemptive, Sound & Color is more ruminative and at times melancholy. A recurring theme within each song is the overcoming of calamity and pain, a reminiscence about the past that contains a mix of both bitterness and hope.
“Sound & Color,” the album’s title track, begins with echoing keyboard harmonies that sound like cool water dripping into a bucket in the most beautiful way. Howard eases in with mournful and heavy vocals that mark a sort of transcendence over the angstiness of the last album, repeating the phrase “sound and color” in a call and response that harkens back to early blues.
The other face of the album is revealed with the second track, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” a song that is indignant and groovy, like a diluted, less naive version of The Jackson 5’s “Blame it On the Boogie.” “Dunes” follows with punchy, heavy guitar and vocals that sound as if from behind a veil, climaxing to a chaos that is reminiscent of the rising intensity at the end of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.” Similar garage or alternative rock sounds follow with “The Greatest” and “Shoegaze.”
In “Future People” a guitar arpeggio is soon overlaid by the high, sweet bell tones of Howard’s voice floating over low, sighing backup vocals that are almost plaintive. The song transitions back and forth between R&B and hard-rock guitar, staying true to the infusion of rock and blues present throughout the album itself. “Gimme All Your Love” and “Gemini” are similarly infused with intimate vocals broken by the intensity of rock guitar, cascading into a raw and potent lamentation. “Miss You” follows the trend with its climaxing intensity and swaying vocals.
“This Feeling” is a warm, sincere redemption song deeply imbued with hope and metaphorical sunlight. The acoustic guitar combined with harmonizing, swelling vocals evoke a settledness in self, a private rumination that is melancholy, wry and smiling all at the same time.
“Guess Who,” like “Sound & Color,” illuminates Alabama Shakes’s ability to stay relevant in the modern R&B scene, with the constant, grooving beat of guitar that sounds bubbly, as if Howard were singing underwater. Occasionally interposed by violin, the song evokes a bygone era of Aretha-Franklin-esque R&B and new, almost electronic sound.
“In Over My Head” is the fitting last song of the album, describing a love that is so potent and deep it leaves the speaker feeling drowned. The phrase “in over my head” repeats throughout the song, rising into an overlap of voices that is both unsettling and consoling. The song, like roots rock itself, conveys inexpressible emotion and a past wrought with hardship and overcoming.
Soulful, raw, somber and resolute, Sound & Color proves yet again Alabama Shakes’s ability to embody the essence of modern roots rock. It will be a privilege to watch this band as it continues to carry the eclectic genre forward.