April has been an extremely busy month for new releases, with highly-anticipated albums by several noteworthy artists hitting the stores each week. Several of these records have lived up to the hype, but the latest album from Alabama Shakes surpassed my wildest expectations to top them all. Sound & Color sees the band expanding beyond their well-worn retro style, as they explore a wide variety of genres and captivate the listener with their passion and precision.
There is a reason why Alabama Shakes experienced massive success with the release of “Hold On”: the brilliant single was the perfect showcase for Brittany Howard’s powerhouse voice, and it was effectively supported by the band’s ability to reproduce old audience-pleasing blues-rock staples perfectly. There is also a reason why despite the fact Boys & Girls was certified Gold off the strength of “Hold On”, the rest of the album failed to leave much of a mark. While it was a perfectly pleasant record, Boys & Girls ended up being a somewhat forgettable album; each song failed to distinguish itself from one another and without a hook as memorable found on “Hold On”, everything eventually bled together.
The same cannot be said for Sound & Color, as Alabama Shakes digs deep into their record collection and delivers songs that filter in 70’s soul, funk, and even garage-rock influences into their blues-based style.* The album never comes off as a series of dalliances with experimentalism though, and Alabama Shakes never sound like mere tourists, since the band is able to find a common thread through each of these genres and infuses each song with their own distinct personality. Each song allows the band to demonstrate their considerable musical chops, but the tracks are so well-composed that none of them sound like a technical exercise; Every guitar riff, organ flourish, and drum fill fit the song perfectly. To top it off, not only is Howard’s dynamic voice as commanding as ever, she also displays a deft sense of control in fitting it within the style of each song.
Sound & Color fades a bit down the stretch, but the impact of the first three-quarters of the album more than makes up for it. It is heartening to see Alabama Shakes improve upon the success of their debut by exploring different creative urges, and in the process they created a record that easily outshines their previous work.
*The easiest comparison I can make is to the new musical directions that the Black Keys took once they started collaborating with Danger Mouse, especially on Brothers and Turn Blue. Though since this is only the second album from Alabama Shakes, the shift will probably be less jarring to the band’s fans.