The dreams-can-come-true American underdog story that narrates the path to success for Brittany Howard – lead vocalist of Alabama Shakes – is even more powerful than her soul-unleashing and explosive roar. The one consistent silver lining in a childhood plagued by bad luck: the premature death of her sister, her parent’s divorce, her family home burnt to ashes, was that she had the justifiable drive, ambition and talent to be in her own rock band. To give her life a purpose away from the mediocrity of her day jobs as a postal worker and truck driver and become the centre of attention that her mother always thought she’d be.
Although it’s fortunate that she grew up in a safe yet mostly dull neighbourhood in Athens, Alabama because it gave her the excuse to learn the guitar, sing and invent songs, also helped and characterized by her self-diagnosed misfit status in society. A pin-point day in the birth of Alabama Shakes was when Howard met another misfit Zac Cockrell at a party and built an instantaneous musical connection. With two additional permanent members (Steve Johnson on drums and Heath Fogg on guitar, backing vocals and percussion) and a live tour member Ben Tanner on keyboards, they still have that oddball charm which audiences feel, the first time they see them live. A collection of individuals that don’t look like they’d have anything in common but possess a synchronized kinship that’s more valuable than identically uniformed pop groups.
Their debut album Boys & Girls was an instant success critically and commercially in 2012 and deservedly so for its surprisingly unembellished authentic and mature retro sound for such an inexperienced group of twenty-somethings. Matched with sincere and confessional lyrics about questioning the natural order of society (“Boys and Girls”) and an introspective first-person self-autobiography told in nonlinear tales by Howard about growing up (“I Ain’t The Same”), dealing with the loss of her sister (“On Your Way”), the contradicting thought process of rebellious teenagers (“Goin To The Party”) and a trilogy about the inevitable stages of love (beginning with “Be Mine”, continuing on “I Found You” ending with “Heartbreaker”). Stories about the curiosities of heaven and the afterlife and the usage of Christian terminology led to speculation of further themes intertwined.
This was famously made more passionate with jaw-dropping vocal delivery from Brittany Howard, that was a force even during word-less whistling and humming, whose enthusiasm and facial contortions made the live shows incredibly memorable, blowing away the impact of the rest of the line up at festivals such as Bestival and Glastonbury. It’s true that composition wise, it seemed as if Howard conducts and dictates the environment around her, but more praise should have been given to unsung hero Steve Johnson and his drumming, which initiated the flow and pace of the structures, whether it was meant to pound us in the heart or stroke our hair and it wasn’t just reliable but was performed with immense personality. The best examples of this intelligent and intricate drumming were on “You Ain’t Alone”, “Heartbreaker” and “Hang Loose”. Their unique flavour of Southern roots rock, 60’s tambourine-tainted soul, gospel organ tenderness, piano blues with a country twang and it’s fuzzy gramophonic production seem to belong to another era and the epic crescendos made every track feel important and worthy of attention.
Exaggerated fear-mongering from the music press suggested that Alabama Shakes’s sophomore album would be a completely different shape-shifting sound that would alienate fans as a result of the band’s new influences and unwillingness to conform to rehashing. Yet their second album Sound & Color is a gradual progression that keeps their distinctive temperament rather than a shocking new ideology. Immediate favourite “Don’t Wanna Fight” has a new funk crust and an addictive blues rock riff full of vibrato but it begins with a wheezy inhaling of air that is typically wild of Howard’s vocal antics, before quintessential strength and increasing dynamism.
On the surface, the lyrics of “Don’t Wanna Fight” are about the struggles relationships bring but the philosophically-minded could interpret it deeper to be a battle with her past that finally warrants closure. “This Feeling” and “Dunes” has a similar antique and under-produced recording air as many tracks on their debut. On the latter, Howard’s voice has a bubbled filter keeping it line with the instruments. It leans towards their friend Jack White in its classic electric guitar freak-outs and jamming but this is balanced out uniquely by subtle airy synths and a ghostly grand-father clock.
Admittedly, one of the most surprise things about the new album is the addition of falsettos to her arsenal. She sounds almost like Hayden Thorpe from Wild Beasts, before being joined by multiple vocals on the static vibration and choppy-wood-block indie guitar of “Future People“. This is a great feature as it moves Howard away from being just that “shouty androgynous lady in that retro band“.
During their three-year gap, The Alabama Shakes listened to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and the music of Gill Scott-Heron and were fascinated by the intricate details of their composition, something that has clearly rubbed off on them on tracks such as “Guess Who“, which is almost identical to Mayfield in its distribution, as well as “Gemini“, “Over My Head” and “Miss You“. The mesmerizing “Gemini” is introduced by Steve Johnson well-timed bashes (still a crucial part of their vitality and is also evolving like Howard’s abilities) and subtle keyboard echoes that chime like a phone off it’s hook, along with the patience of the guitars, sets a thought-provoking nocturnal mood.
The hesitant phrasing and murmurs of Howard (now sounding like a masculine Yukimi Nagano) are noticeable for lacking the clarity and comprehensibility of Boys & Girls, forcing bloggers of lyrics websites to add an array of question marks. It has a mid-tempo pace that refuses to rush its textures and becomes branded with Alabama Shakes style organs. When a fuzzy tremolo-toxicated progressive rock guitar enters its spotlight, succeeding the words, “we knew no fear“, it’s a surprise yet a significantly measured one.
“Over My Head” is a track that’s fascinating for its blend of the veteran and the contemporary. A post-dub-step drum beat and neo-soul smoothness is paired with touches of theremin, slow jazzy piano and doo-wops from another band they grew acquainted with in the postponement: The Temptations. “Miss You” seems like it’s going on the same more relaxed tempo with it’s The Righteous Brothers prom-like beginning, before it flares up into being a romantic expression of love. Whilst, “The Greatest” dismisses any notion of this being all about smooth grooves with its garage rock and howling organ experimentation.
It could easily be a track from Boys & Girls – with Howard’s yells reaching their potential – if it wasn’t for their new friend, the vibraphone, painting saccharine innocence and is a reoccurring instrument that also pokes it head through “Gemini” and “Guess Who” and escorts us into the album on title-track “Sound & Color” like a supermarket tannoy announcement. The multi-personality of Howard vocals seems as if she is speaking to herself talking on the role of both soul queen Diana Ross and quiet storm artist Marvin Gaye, like how she did lyrically on “Hold On”: “Come on Brittany, you got to come on up“. Furthermore wayward and haunting strings prepare us for an album that breaks some rules.
Fans shouldn’t be worried by Alabama Shakes’ development as their overall personality of mature musicianship and raw emotion remains. The most intriguing wonder is how it will translate in their adored live environment. For now, let’s just embrace their change in sound and colour. Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color is out now via ATO Records, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs
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