Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color review – riveting, kaleidoscopic second album

(Rough Trade)

Powerhouses don’t come much more energised than Brittany Howard, a bespectacled former postal worker who becomes supercharged when strapped to a guitar and pushed on to a stage. When they emerged out of Athens, Alabama in 2012 with their debut album Boys & Girls, her band, Alabama Shakes, impressed on multiple levels: the fissile material out front, combining down-home mama chops and an outsider’s zeal, and the instant appeal of songs such as Hold On, in which Howard boggles that she made it “to 22 years old”. This band of misfits also had the casual authority of people at home in a slew of genres, although their default mode was a kind of soulful rock with all the grit of garage and the guts of the blues left in.

Ultimately, though, for all its many thrills, sales (725,000-plus in the US) and high-profile fans (Jack White and Adele and Robert Plant and the Obamas), their debut was still a preternaturally rocking roots album. Its successor, three years in the making, is something else altogether, a record with expanded, kaleidoscopic horizons. So long compared to singers such as Etta James and Janis Joplin, Howard is now channelling Curtis Mayfield, Prince, Marvin Gaye and Erykah Badu.

One song, Future People, is emblematic of the change that has come over Alabama Shakes in the past few years. Two radically different guitar lines (Howard’s and guitarist Heath Fogg’s, one a faintly Japanese-sounding pattern) lead into the song’s sultry soul-rock groove. Howard doesn’t belt out her words immediately, but instead croons in falsetto, about meeting dearly departed friends and family as spirit guides. (The death of Howard’s older sister, Jaime, in childhood looms large here.) Suddenly a bone-shaking bass line arrives and we are not in Alabama any more, Toto, but in a kind of psychedelic funk. Just after it, the slow, spacious blues of Gimme All Your Love suggests D’Angelo fronting Led Zeppelin.

Alabama Shakes – Gimmie All Your Love official video.

Guess Who, meanwhile, is something else again, like a string-laden, machine-funk take on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going on. “All I want is some peace of mind,” croons Howard angelically. (Crooning angelically is hardly what she is known for.) The band’s punky garage tendency survives in a terrifically messy rocker called The Greatest, which sounds like the Strokes covering the Rolling Stones. About turn again: Miss You is a stonking retro soul cut sluiced in vibraphone. Not once do you wonder what all this disparate, wiggy material is doing on one record. Howard’s identity – identities, now – is stamped throughout. The rest of the band is every bit as riveting as she is.

Although their Alabama home is central to the Shakes’ raison d’etre (a complex mix of representing their roots, wanting to leave, but then choosing to stay and buy houses there), Don’t Wanna Fight, one of Sound & Color’s most instantly gratifying tracks, suggests Howard’s writing is reaching beyond themes of hard graft and tentative love. Don’t Wanna Fight works on the level of a love song, but actually it’s about how conflict poisons everything, both on the micro, you-and-me level and the macro level of global aggression. You can only marvel at where they will go next.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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