ALABAMA SHAKES: SOUND & COLOR (2015)
1) Sound & Color; 2) Don't Wanna Fight; 3) Dunes; 4) Future People; 5) Gimme All Your Love; 6) This Feeling; 7) Guess Who; 8) The Greatest; 9) Shoegaze; 10) Miss You; 11) Gemini; 12) Over My Head.
On their second album, the Alabama Shakes seem to find themselves facing a choice — cast the net wider or drill deeper? (The option of «staying exactly the same» probably not being regarded seriously by anyone). While some reviewers have allegedly implied that they went for the former, I would rather say that they went for the latter. The record sounds differently from Boys & Girls, for sure, but not because they have seriously embraced any new styles — more because Brittany Howard seems more self-assured than ever, and has seriously prepared herself to embrace the regular responsibilities of «Soul Mama #1».
I mean, look at the lady — she's big, decidedly unglamorous, wears grandmother's dresses, and seems ready to crash the party at will (like they did in 2013 with a terrific cover of ʽAdam Raised A Cainʼ at the MusiCares tribute to the Boss — blowing most of the others off the stage, not the least due to their choice of the darkest-dreariest song in the man's catalog). She plays «grandmother's music», too, even if it cannot help reflecting the spirit of the indie-rock era, and that sure ain't gonna help her none in the era of Taylor Swift's crossover. She does look, though, like the kind of person who takes those «Be Yourself!» slogans seriously — not in the usual sense of «Be like any of our leading brands of the day that we have laid out for you!», but literally. And the good news is — she still has talent to burn, too.
Subsequently, Sound & Color is filled with slow, bluesy tunes, often creating the illusion of depth with chiming, reverberating keyboards, loud bass, and echoey vocals — arranged in such a way that the emphasis is almost always on call-and-response interplay. Yes, we are intentionally entering this «deep soul» territory, as if Boys & Girls were this innocent brand of Southern rock played on your front porch, and now we are moving into a church hall — or, at least, into a subterranean cave, since much of the album does sound as if it were recorded in one. But «deep soul» requires a perfect balance between brawn and subtlety, since it is more character-based than hook-based, and the question is... well, you know.
If you want to know whether you need to bother at all, check out the fourth track, ʽFuture Peopleʼ. Opening with a brash, heavily syncopated funky riff, it paves the road to what might be the single most soulful delivery I have heard in a long time — the way she starts out shirll and high, gradually falling down to lower octaves and then rebounding back at the end of the verse (without resorting to melismatics or anything) is just piercing to the skin. Some might find it annoying, of course, but let them go back to their Beyoncés and Rihannas: this is the real deal, and it's got some pretty decent lyrics to go along with as well, though nothing particularly special in that department — it's just cool that a «futuristic anthem» should be delivered this way, with a howl that you'd think more suitable for a gospel-drenched ceremony at a funeral.
The first single from the album was ʽGimme All Your Loveʼ, melodically recognizable as.. well, as something that could have potentially been recorded by Otis Redding, although slightly Led Zeppelin-ized (big drums and heavy power chords included in spots), but again, it is Howard's «from-a-whisper-to-a-scream» vocals that take the place of melodic hooks, and she does sound like she means it at both ends. The second single was ʽDon't Wanna Fightʼ, which is not an anti-war song but might as well be one, what with the ambiguous nature of the lyrics — no, really, it is more of a lament over having to constantly battle for territory with her other one, with a repetitive falsetto chorus that does not bring on disco associations, because it's more like paranoid hysterical falsetto than tender loving falsetto.
Sometimes they still let their hair down — ʽThe Greatestʼ sounds more like the Velvet Underground (ʽWaiting For The Manʼ, to be precise) than Otis, with a fast, churning, dirty garage sound and lots of hooliganish overdubs; and ʽShoegazeʼ is titled ʽShoegazeʼ, even though it has little to do with real shoegaze, but it is a power pop offering that tends to veer off into twin guitar drone territory from time to time. These two tracks, lodged as they are close to each other, turn the album towards loud, upbeat rock'n'roll territory for a while, but they are exceptions, two brief dynamic explosions in an album that should rather be listened to under torchlight.
Like I said, though, they are a modern band. Few people in the era of classic deep soul would have dreamed, after one of the songs has slowly, stately, gracefully, and somewhat mysteriously strolled over your living room for four minutes, to introduce a guitar solo that would constitute of little other than howling feedback, bleeding over your carpet for over a minute. Well, maybe Big Brother & Holding Company could, since their lead guitarists were poorly trained punks and had to compensate for lack of training with a lot of noise (and what a great noise that could be, too): but Howard and Heath Fogg are certainly doing that out of conceptual reasons. (That said, I could stand the presence of a few regular guitar solos every now and then — apparently, they're not big fans of those, both because the soul/R'n'B tradition was not that hot on them, either, and because guitar solos are out of fashion these days as well. Ah well, never mind).
So, am I saying that Sound & Color is a great collection of songs? Nope. Without Howard's presence, most of these songs would be just old-fashioned vamps. With her presence, though, it gives us one more glimpse at a genuinely lovable character. Maybe they could write «better songs», but they seem to be afraid to do it at the expense of losing that ol' feeling, which they express so well through her alterations of powerhouse / arch-subtle vocals and through their jagged, broken-up, bleeding tune structures. And that's perfectly okay by me — in fact, I certainly was not expecting this particular direction, believing that they would either stagnate (49.5% probability) or commercialize (another 49.5%). However, they chose the thin remaining path between the two obvious roads, and preferred to become only what might be the leading soul band in today's music. Not bad, I'd say — certainly deserving of a thumbs up.