Junk Mail: Alabama Shakes, 'Sound & Color' Album Review
Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week, Carolyn Menyes, Maria Jean Sullivan and Caitlin Carter chat about Alabama Shake's new album Sound & Color. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Caitlin Carter: Alabama Shakes' debut album Boys & Girls solidified them as a Southern soul rock powerhouse. Now, three years later, they return with their sophomore effort Sound & Color. On the new effort, they abandon the recipe that made their debut so successful and opt for an experimental sound that draws from a variety of genres and influences. Although some might argue that this makes the album less cohesive, I argue that it works under the concept that the title lays out: it's an album full of different sounds and colors (tones). I'd also argue that this was a brave move -- one that shows that the band can stretch itself and that Brittany Howard isn't the group's only breakout talent.
I'll going to go ahead and say it now, this effort is already one of my favorite releases of 2015.
Carolyn Menyes: A bold statement from Caitlin right out the gate! I'll also say that I'm so happy to return to my alternative rock place of comfort after reviewing what felt like 100 rap albums so far this year.
I had a lot of expectations for Sound & Color. The album's two lead singles "Don't Wanna Fight" and "Gimme All Your Love" are some of the strongest songs of the year so far. What I loved about this album was that it was able to restrain Alabama Shakes in a way. Brittany Howard's voice if frickin' insane, and it would sometimes go unchecked on Boys & Girls -- not here. She never overwhelms the other Shakers. Instead, she works through this fusion of blues, Southern traditions and alternative rock swimmingly.
Maria Jean Sullivan: I'd have to agree with Caitlin's audacious statement. For me, in 2015, Sound & Color is right up there with Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, Modest Mouse's Strangers to Ourselves and Sleater-Kinney's No Cities to Love. The later two of which, like Alabama Shakes, have female power behind their success.
Strangers to Ourselves features multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Lisa Molinaro (Talkdemonic), a fairly new staple to the duct taped together Modest Mouse lineup. Sleater-Kinney's womanly muscle and grit needs no formal surmise. But if you will, Corin Tuckers's sexual hiccup vocals make a perfect parallel statement to Brittnay Howard's emotive crooning. Sing it, girl!
CC: There's something about the Alabama Shakes that makes them relatable to the every-man, and there's something about Howard's voice that touches some place deep in the soul. Sure, there are plenty of R&B singers out there with arguably better range, but every note that comes out of Howard's mouth seems to serve a specific emotive purpose. I mean that intro for "Don't Wanna Fight" -- DAMN.
As Carolyn pointed out, however, Howard by no means overpowers the rest of her band. The instrumental layering on this album is really engaging. Sound & Color feels more spacious than Boys & Girls. That free-feeling allows the new elements of jazz, disco, funk, R&B, punk, psychedelic rock and blues to really drive each song without seeming disjointed on the album as a whole.
CM: Maria, I am LOVING all the ladies in rock and music in general these days. Sleater-Kinney's album continues to melt my face off and you draw that interesting comparison. What I love is that both Howard and Tucker just always go for it. I'm a big sucker for emotional and powerful performances -- anything that can engage me will always make me a fan. So, that's what make Alabama Shakes and Sleater-Kinney work for me, which is something you touched on too Caitlin. I don't think Howard's power or range should be up for debate, though. She has more than enough to work with.
I think all the underlying grooves is maybe what makes this album feel a little like R&B, but I don't get the same genre elements from it that you do, Caitlin. I think that's just soul and, you know, the blues. You could tie Alabama Shakes in with, like PBR&B if you want, but that seems more like a demographics thing than anything else.
Genre distinctions aside (because does it really matter at the end of the day?) I think we could talk about the talent in Alabama Shakes until the cows come home.
MJS: Yea it is so amazing to me, Carolyn, and monumental I guess, that neither Tucker, Howard or even Molinaro need to, say, "announce" their womanhood in the way they dress, create and even perform on stage, musically aside.
For example, I saw Molinaro a little over a month ago with Issac Brock and the gang at the Bowery Ballroom and at no moment did I think, "hey, who is that hot, female, violinist in the band now?" Her stage presence was all about doing werk: playing the keys, singing with Brock, stomping her feet while plucking her violin, etc. In other words, there was not, and is no need, for a formal, "look at me, ain't I pretty, can't I sing". The trend continues with Tucker's business as usual presence in one of their latest live performances I can not stop watching, their NPR 9:30 Club live stream and this weeks Alabama Shakes performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Here, Howard is no different. Perhaps on Boys & Girls Howard's voice seemed like this magical instrument, overwhelming yet powerful as though it was bottle necked in her vocal chords along with all of her pain, fears and desires only to, abruptly, shoot out into the stale at best music landscape of 2012. Spend a few years on the road really getting into the grit and heart of what making music means and you turn up with Sound & Color.
Howard's voice is still the nest egg of Alabama Shakes' sound; sad and soulful, reminiscent of Erykah Badu on "Gemini". But, now the rest of the Shakes, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson, and touring keyboard players Ben Tanner and Paul Horton are not only present but enunciated. Tanner, Horton and Johnson channel a sentimental Wilco sound on the outro of "Dunes" while Fogg and Cockrell reminded me of The Strokes' hotty-hot-pants Julian Casablancas on "The Greatest".
Even Bon Iver (indie) collaborator and yMusic (classical/chamber) band member Rob Moose plays strings on S&C. Due to these signifiers, I can hear all of those genres you list, Caitlin. After all, they are signed to Dave Matthews' ATO Records and that's got to be a great room to be in at times.
But I almost don't feel right categorizing AS with a genre, rather a slew of other adjectives including polished, brooding, hyper sensual, to name a few.
CC: I would agree. The mood definitely stands out more than the genre in AS's work. Now to get into songs we enjoyed... I will say that for me the album is a little top heavy as far as my favorites, which include the grooving and soulful "Don't Wanna Fight," the hazy and sensual "Future People," and the slow-burning "Gimme All Your Love" (I actually teared up listening to that on my walk this morning). I'd also put "The Greatest" on that list because that punk-goes-psychedelic sound was really unexpected and added a shot of adrenaline to the second half of the record. How about you guys?
CM: "Gimme All Your Love" can definitely be a tearjerker, given the right circumstances. What I love about that song is the electric guitar blasts it keeps giving, before the music fades into the background to really let Howard's heartbreaking cry break through. It's so insanely effective, and it's my favorite Alabama Shakes song to date. I also think the song has a fascinating texture to it, with these little psychedelic punches at the end of the chorus. It's beautiful, even if that sounds a little hyperbolic.
I was also going to list "The Greatest" as one of the ~greatest~ songs on Sound & Color. The energy and melody really reminds me of mid-2000s alt-rock, which is where my heart has always truly lied. I also really love the Southern rock roots on "Shoegaze." The song is not really at all shoegaze-y (that may be the only genre to not appear on this album), but it feels crunchy and down home. There's something about it that takes me back to old school Kings of Leon, from the high scaling of the guitars even down to the way that Howard cuts off each line and seems to sing from her cheeks. It's gritty, and my god, I miss that so much in my rock 'n' roll.
You're right, though. I feel like this album is a little top heavy. To be honest, the last three songs are pretty forgettable in the grand scheme of things.
MJS: So I am really into the sensual Common or even D'Angelo feel "Guess Who" starts out with. And once Howard's muffled voice chimes in and the old-timey strings at the 1:33 mark... it just sounds so lovely. And reminds me of Andre 3000's track "Prototype" on OutKast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which I still credit to this day as being uber sexy. I'm digggn' on "The Greatest" too. Like I said before it reminds me of Julian Casablancas' handy work. That bass, doe. This would be a great track to see live. I can feel the energy it would evoke from a crowd of sweaty, dancing guys and dolls.
"Shoegaze" is pretty tight, too. Fogg really shines here with just the right amount of string peppering throughout and a well placed solo at the 1:31 mark. In general, I am really loving the intros here on Sounds & Color. Like a perfectly comfortable walk in to what you know is going to be a boisterous party.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention "Don't Wanna Fight". I've been playing and replaying, singing out loud in public and dancing to this song for weeks. It's just so perfectly Alabama Shakes. You've got these intense, relateable lyrics over sexy, grungy guitar licks and just plain classic drum beats. The bridge takes you to this secret alley way where you are not sure if you are mad anymore or filled with passion. Then Howard begs and pleads "I don't wanna fight no more" over and over again. We've all been there, that place where there is no possible way we could be wrong for the irrationally unfair thing we said or did. This song is how you feel once you are on the brink of realizing it's not worth the fight. Whatever "it" even was in the first place.
CC: A vague lyrical theme on this album seems to be Howard wanting love to be easy and lamenting how hard and complicated it is. I feel for her. Now on to the criticism...There is nothing on this album that I dislike, but as I said before, Sound & Color is a bit top heavy. "Gemini," "Over My Head" were pretty forgettable for me. What about you guys?
CM: Don't we all want love to be easy... I feel ya, sister. But, you're right, I think "Don't Wanna Fight" is a little easy to sort of push aside because it's so classic Alabama Shakes. But that's a sound that has worked for years, and it definitely continues to be effectively engaging. And that opening squeal note is so fooooine and engaging. Love it.
I think one critique of this album could be that it feels a little disjointed. I love that Alabama Shakes decided to experiment more with genre and expand on what they always just used to do, but beyond the unifying themes of Howard's voice and I guess the same instrumentation, a song like "The Greatest" is so different from "Gemini" which is so different from "Future People." If you really think about it, it doesn't totally gel. It's not much to bump down my overall opinion of this record (which is also that it's great), but it is something to consider!
CC: It's so interesting to me the metrics of judging good albums, but for me, cohesion comes in many forms. Sonically, Sound & Color is all over the place, but I think the tone is still consistent, despite tempo. I totally get what you mean though, Carolyn. What about you Maria? Do you feel the album should've been more cohesive?
MJS: Yea I feel ya two. It is hard for me to say there is anything bad or not working per say on this album. But I also came to S&C with a biased opinion. They ooze such phenomenal talent for a band that could still be considered "budding" in terms of how many recordings they have. And did you know home girl is only 26?! With a voice like that?!
But it is slightly in-cohesive in the sense that some tracks are "meh". Not bad or unnecessary. I didn't even fast forward once, though I did listen through a few without even noticing a new song had started or ended. Case in point closer "Over My Head". It's not a bad track, really it isn't. I think they could have closed the album with a stronger track and threw "Over My Head" somewhere in the middle. But, when I listened through it on Spotify and landed on "Hold On" I wasn't disappointed it was over. I was rejuvenated again by that classic AS sound.
CC: Welcome back Alabama Shakes! Damn, I sure missed ya! Sound & Color was not what I was expecting from them, but I am thoroughly satisfied with it and am actually happy that they mixed things up a bit. There is so much talent in this band. I don't think I've heard a song that I actually disliked from them. With just two albums in, I am expecting a great legacy from these guys.
CM: Despite some inconsistencies, Sound & Color is a great sophomore effort. I don't want to fully dismiss some of the misfired songs here, because they definitely do exist, but the strong singles more than make up for it. Solid A for me!
MJS: Hands down a great sophomore record form a band that already seems regal. I almost always forget that don't have a handful of albums barreling behind them. Sound & Color is going to sound great live, much like Boys & Girls did. Some duds in here, I'll admit, but nothing worth omitting or a bad review.