Alabama Shakes' use of Blues Rock and Soul has taken the four-piece band from Athens, Alabama, to great heights in a relatively short period of time. Their sophomore effort 'Sound & Color' is a similar cocktail of Kings Of Leon licks, The Black Keys infused Blues, and classic Soul power, but there are a few extra ingredients to add a little more spice tucked away here. This certainly isn't 'Boys & Girls' MKII, indeed there's less reliance on those catchy guitar hooks this time around. While Brittany Howard's occasionally astonishing vocals are the main attraction again, there's undoubtedly a real musical progression that's been made by the rest of the band. The result is that Alabama Shakes feel far less like a Soul band trying to pass themselves off as an Indie band; they're now quite comfortable in their own skin.
Straight out of the gate, the title track has an almost hypnotic effect with its slightly syncopated drum rhythm, strings, and repeated "Sound & Color" mantra. It's not the only time where the familiar incessant guitar hooks of the previous album are entirely absent. On first listen, it's almost slightly jarring with your expectation, but it's that drumming that really shines and that's the thing that pulls you in. The shift in focus also seems unexpected considering that Blake Mills has co-produced the record. Surely a man famed for his guitar playing would choose to highlight that aspect of Alabama Shakes successful formula? Well, no; Mills is no stranger to using instruments sparingly for dramatic effect, and it really shows here.
The next few tracks seem to head back towards a more recognisable musical template for Alabama Shakes. The energetic and confrontational 'Don't Wanna Fight' gives Howard a chance to really let rip vocally, but again, behind the funky guitar line, it's those drums that catch the ear. Perhaps the stand-out of the record 'Gimme All Your Love' is the best example of Mills' expertise in deploying instruments sparingly. The guitars dramatically punctuate a late night jazz club beat that ebbs and flows into a final impressive call and response instrumental jam that's perhaps the band's finest moment committed to tape thus far. It's perhaps fitting that the acoustic 'This Feeling' follows as a respite from the aural assault that's come beforehand.
It's a couple of tracks until the record shifts into high gear again, but this time it's not Soul or Blues, it's straight up frenetic Garage Rock on 'The Greatest'. It's like a warped version of the MC5 or The Stooges with that mighty voice of Howard's acting as ringmaster. One suspects that if she wasn't from the Deep South she'd be heading up a Riot Grrrl revival band if this song is anything to go by. 'The Greatest' is certainly not the only time that the band broadens its palette though. 'Over My Head' closes out the record with a distinctly Gospel send-off. It's got hand claps, soaring choir vocals, and some haunting keyboards, perhaps unsurprisingly, though, it's also another chance for Steve Johnson's drumming to impress.
'Sound & Color' pretty much does what it says on the tin, then. It's a far more grown up record than 'Boys & Girls', which was exuberant, happy and eager to please. 'Sound & Color''s more challenging approach, with a broader musical scope makes it ultimately more rewarding. The inclusion of Blake Mills on co-production duties is a welcome move if this is the result. 'Sound & Color' certainly takes a couple of listens to sit comfortably with your expectations, but once it does, these tracks prove that Alabama Shakes are far from a flash in the pan. Brittany Howard is fast becoming a real force to be reckoned with and she's certainly at the top of her game here, which is as good an excuse as any to give this record a spin.
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