After finding surprise success with their first album, Alabama Shakes released their second studio album, 2015’s Sound & Color, to rave reviews. Front-woman Brittany Howard and the band departed from the blues-soul sound of Boys & Girls to explore a deeper more mysterious sound. Barry Nicholson of NME describes the difference in the album’s writing, saying, “their debut was cast in sepia hues and down-home earthiness, its follow-up is a more kaleidoscopic affair.”
The tracks on Boys & Girls are laden with hearty, soulful influences like Otis Redding. After expressing that they don’t want to “carry the torch” of soul-rock, the band’s sophomore album sheds the essence of the “retro-soul” style to explore a synthy, mystical story. The vibe of the album is reminiscent of the stories told by famed dreamers like Bowie and Zeppelin.
The opening title track sets the tone for the rest of the album. It is an introduction to the new sound and invites the listener to engage by showcasing dreamy xylophone melodies and a softer, wandering performance from Howard. When the listener hears the synthy strings added by Bon Iver’s Rob Moose, they begin to understand the sound they expect from the band is just a little different now.
Shoegaze — a reference to a punk rock movement that became popular in the 1980’s — is a masterful track. Fans named the movement’s performers “shoegazers” because of their detached state of performance at shows. This style features heavy feedback, use of effect pedals, and muffled vocals that blend into an overall sound.
Howard’s vocals are more exploratory on this album. She is less forceful and instead offers a subtle build up in each song. After singing in church as a child, Howard has no problem being the singular source of power in a performance. On Sound and Color, she masterfully layers and mixes her voice to match the aura of each song. She still uses her larger than life personality to add depth and interest though. The song Gimme All Your Love is a true showcase of the band’s integration. Howard’s voice yields to trudging a bass solo that leads to a climax that steals the show.
Even though the band is exploring new territory, guitarist Heath Fogg’s style still provides fans with the old-school sound we fell in love with on the first album. His funk grounds the experimental sound and blends beautifully with the organs, strings, synths. The songs on this album take their time to tell their story– and are unapologetic about it.
By taking influence from new places, exploring their sound, and working together, Alabama Shakes created one of the most avant-garde albums of 2015. Rolling Stone notes that “As they grow toward a greatness that does away with others’ assumptions, these proud freaks stay grounded”.
The band invites us as fans to join their journey by remaining humble.