Alabama Shakes is a real “band”. We don’t have too many hard hitting, bluesy rock n’ roll bands still out there (at least in the mainstream of things) really putting out solid music and fantastic live shows as much anymore. Sure, there’s The Black Keys, Jack White, and anyone who’s still around and kicking from the classic rock groups of the last 40-50 years, but as far as a modern day rock n’ roll tour-de-force, there’s only a couple left. I was just about to give up on rock music’s return.
Jack White’s last record, Lazaretto, had a fantastic title track single, The Black Keys’ Turn Blue and even Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, sent both groups into a rock-esque, interesting, unneeded, yet enjoyable “get with the times,” tangent from rock, Cage the Elephant seems to be best when it comes to singles, not albums, The Kooks went to electronic and synthy, Julian Casablancas can’t decide which band of his he likes better and it seems neither group really cares, U2 keeps injuring themselves while touring, and Paul McCartney is singing backup for Kanye West.
As bleak as that all sounds, right when I put on my first listen of Sound & Color, and read that Dave Grohl broke his leg on stage and cancelled the Foo Fighters tour, and decided that that was the end of rock music as we know it, Brittany Howard’s wind-up screech leading into the hard panned guitars of “Don’t Wanna Fight,” had me stepping back from cursing EDM and the year 2015 and exclaiming, “oh!” The sound Howard makes kind of hurts a bit. It starts at the top of your head and kind of slowly moves down to the bottom of your stomach until the guitar lines kick back in. As oddly placed as the winding screech is, it’s straight up rock n’ roll.
I first heard of Alabama Shakes three years ago, when their single “Hold On,” from their debut record Boys & Girls was played live on Saturday Night Live. I remember really digging Brittany Howard’s vocal style and the blues-rock feel of the band altogether. Hailing from Athens, Alabama, Brittany Howard left her side-music-project, Thunderbitch, to start The Shakes with bassist Zac Cockrell before adding the rest of the band and the “Alabama.” In relatively one year’s time, the group released a four song EP, got recognized by NPR to play at CMJ Music Marathon in New York, the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Rymin Auditorium in Nashville, and then signed to Rough Trade, where they wrote Boys & Girls. Ever rising, they closed the first night of Bonnaroo 2012, played Saturday Night Live, recorded some singles for Third Man Records with Jack White, released their second full length LP, Sound & Color, and are set to headline Boston Calling 2015 in September. So, things are looking pretty damn up as they’ve always been for Alabama Shakes.
Though even with all that success, until Sound & Color, and the exception of “Hold On,” I wasn’t really a big fan of theirs. In my personal opinion, Boys & Girls sounds like a well post-produced demo, and while it functioned incredibly well to launch them to where they are today, the record didn’t really stand out at all to me, other than to say, “wow, Brittany Howard has a really cool voice.” It wasn’t until that opening, winding screech of “Don’t Wanna Fight,” that I felt like they really delivered. And that’s what I love best about Sound & Color, that Alabama Shakes was able to grow as a band and really shed away any doubts or misgivings I had toward them and really deliver a solid album.
The title track opener is smooth and innovative for the group, with vibraphone, something I never expected to hear on an Alabama Shakes album, and the drummer really gets inventive with the rhythms and breaks the rock drumming pattern with grooves that really enhance the material. And Sound & Color continues to be very diverse; and still solidly so. After showcasing their hard blues rock roots, they move on to a softer songs like “This Feeling” and “Guess Who,” and the shuffling, “The Greatest,” before returning. While the last fourth of the record didn’t stand out to me as much as the rest had been, the closer “Over My Head,” is really cool. With a glitching and swung drum pattern, chorus vocals akin to the opener, a Rhodes-like sounding synth, and a mid-way through the song switch to rock drums, and then straight 6/8 time, the track is insanely groovy and a clean closer to what I believe is a fantastic record that removes any doubt of Alabama Shakes ability to deliver.