Alabama Shakes possess a very particular je ne sais quos. Few doubts exist as to their work ethic on stage or off, yet their affect remains paradoxically effortless. It all just seems to happen: the critical and commercial success of their 2012 debut Boys and Girls, the subsequent Grammy nominations, the SXSW hype, TV appearances on Saturday Night Live and Conan, well-attended sets at Glastonbury and Coachella, Jack White’s love and devotion and the Third Man Records commission to show for it.
And it is all still happening. Alabama Shakes’ mojo comes back for seconds on Sound and Color, a dusky jewel of a sophomore effort loaded with rugged charm and ruled by its heart. Emotions – some pleasant, many less so – drive the record and determine its eventual fate. Given the evocative powers of frontwoman Britney Howard’s unforgettable pipes, passion over cold calculation is a remarkable and intelligent choice.
Howard is as dynamic as singers come, but to credit the record’s exceptional results to her alone would be a colossal disservice to her non-singing counterparts. The vocals-free three-quarters of Alabama Shakes experience little trouble making their contributions heard. Guitarist Heath Fogg fills every riff and solo with hard-edged soul; his crying guitar weeps blood on “Miss You”. He and Howard deploy devilishly bluesy pyrotechnics on “The Greatest”, an irresistible half garage, half roots number infused with surf rock sparkle. The rhythm section of drummer Steve Johnson and bassist Zac Cockrell keep Howard and Fogg grounded while maintaining the album’s extra aged bourbon smoothness.
While Alabama Shakes excel at drums, bass, and guitar, they defy the classic rock band model throughout in favor of a gospel organ. The organ makes the first and last sounds on the album; the sounds it makes in between (especially on standout “Shoegaze”) spin a marvelous connecting thread.
Sound and Color never hesitates to use the organ’s triumphant noises or its darker ones, the latter heard on the final two tracks: six-and-half-minute narrative dirge “Gemini” and the slow burning “Over My Head”. While Howard’s storytelling abilities peak on “Gemini”, ending the album funeral style makes for the consistency and pacing to swing too low too quickly.
Any band named Alabama Shakes clearly loves their southern rock, but to refer to the band as mere revivalists would be to insult them and their contemporary perspective. Alabama Shakes is Americana only if you manage to ignore the reggae beats. Perhaps it is poetic then that Howard’s wails and whispers recall fellow southerner Janis Joplin, who made her name and legend not by singing country in her native Texas but as the Queen of Psychedelic Soul in sun-soaked California.
Like Joplin, Alabama Shakes refuse to restrict themselves to the sonic comforts of home, even if those southern flavors still color their work. Sound and Color is garage rock of the Creedence Clearwater Revival persuasion, the further-reaching and grungiest branches of good ol’ roots rock. And none of it sniffs of countless hours in the studio. Every last impossibly effortless wonder of Sound and Color just seems to happen.