Alabama Shakes Opens New Territory On 'Sound & Color'

Apr 27, 2015

Over the course of Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes messes with what had already, after its first album, become its signature sound. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.

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This is FRESH AIR. The band Alabama Shakes has a new album - their second - called "Sound & Color." The quartet, led by singer-guitarist Brittany Howard, made a splash with its 2012 debut "Boys & Girls," which was hailed for its mix of contemporary rock with older-blues and R&B stylings. Rock critic Ken Tucker says "Sound & Color" finds Alabama Shakes experimenting with an even wider range of pop music genres.


BRITTANY HOWARD: (Singing) My life, your life - don't cross them lines. What you like, what I like - why can't we both be right? Attacking, defending until there's nothing left worth winning. Your pride and my pride - don't waste my time. I don't wanna fight no more.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The funky guitar riff followed by the combination of yelling, moaning, wheezing, squeal that emanates from Brittany Howard to kick off the song "Don't Wanna Fight" - that's the essence of Alabama Shakes' sound. It's a sound that reaches back to the blues and '60s Southern soul, as well as a sound that plunges forward into the spoken-word vocals of hip-hop. Alabama Shakes is a quartet set up like a rock band - guitar, bass, drums - but which claims any kind, or era, of music as its own.


HOWARD: (Singing) Somewhere over the dunes, love, I walk, I wept - enough. I turn the desert into sea, babe. I swam from the terrible dust. I don't know whose problem it is. I don't know whose love to give. I'm losing it.

TUCKER: That's "Dunes," a song that multitracks Brittany Howard's voice, as if she wanted company in her romantic misery. Some of the best music on "Sound & Color" is the most quiet music -the moments when Brittany Howard seems to have transcribed conversations she's had with herself about her state of mind, her moods and fleeting feelings. You can hear this in a vocal that confides in you on the song "This Feeling."


HOWARD: (Singing) See, I've been having me a real good time. And it feels so nice to know I'm gonna be all right. So please don't take my feelings I have found at last. So please don't take my feelings I have found at last. Yeah, if I wanted to, I'd be all right.

TUCKER: Which is not to say that Alabama Shakes doesn't rock out. Having made so much about how much the band prizes intimate sharing, I feel happily obliged to play some of "The Greatest," a kind of new punk rock song about wanting a particular person to love you and just not getting that feeling back in return.


HOWARD: (Singing) Well, I never meant to be the greatest. I only ever want to be your baby. Now you got me in your arms. Don't ever let me go, go anywhere. Should I say stay, stay away? I know you ain't out there tryin' to be my baby. God help us, help us all. Don't ever let me down. You're always doin' that.

TUCKER: For most of its length, "Sound & Color" is a collection of really interesting vocals surrounded by guitar chords and drumbeats that carry you along. Then there are a few very special songs, such as this one called "Shoegaze," in which Howard's vocal and the guitars by Howard and Heath Fogg rise up to create a perfectly crafted piece of music that sounds familiar and exhilarating the first time you hear it or the hundredth time you play it.


HOWARD: (Singing) Can't wait for night to come. That's when the fun really begins. My band cools off when that day is done. And then I tuck myself in. It ain't no fun to be lonely. But I was not truly lonely. And I'm beginning to realize it. I can't have everything, everything.

TUCKER: Over the course of "Sound & Color," Alabama Shakes messes with what had already - after its first album - become its signature sound. There are songs here that distort or muffle the vocals, that fracture tempo and wander around the back alleys of improvisation. Because of this, "Sound & Color" isn't a consistent album. But Alabama Shakes does what it needed to do. It's made a second album that opens up new territory and leaves you curious about where the band will go next.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Sound & Color," the new album from the band Alabama Shakes. Coming up, linguistic Geoff Nunberg considers how the word disrupt became part of tech and corporate jargon. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.