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Album Review: Alabama Shakes – “Sound & Color”

Sound & Color

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I had the wrong expectations. Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe I fell too hard for their first album. Maybe not.

I have to first say I loved Boys & Girls, the debut from Alabama Shakes. The album exploded with a southern rock twang and earth-shattering soulful vocals belted from the awe-inspiring Brittany Howard. I often described their sound as “Etta James meets The Allman Brothers Band.” “Holy Shit!” was the thought I repeated after hearing Boys & Girls. This was new, this was powerful, and this was incredible. They weren’t Alabama Shakes they were Alabama Soul. Howard brought a powerful, feminine roar from a broken heart, basically telling us, “You can break my heart, but never destroy my soul.” It was an incredible album and I was delighted to hear their new one, Sound & Color.

With Sound & Color, Howard let’s down her guard and shows us how fragile she really is, and that disappointed me. The album starts with the title track. It’s a down-tempo, jazzy tune that would fit perfectly in the soundtrack to Casablanca, almost a lounge singer tune. The next track is the first single, “Don’t Wanna Fight.” This is the apex of the album, at least from my perspective of them being Alabama Soul. Despite it being by far my favorite track, it still has some issues. I think the chorus is repeated to an alarming amount. Howard saves this from complete disaster with her vibrant singing style.

The culmination in my disappointment can be heard in the track “This Feeling.” It begins with some lonely acoustic chords and a minimal drum beat. Howard takes us down a journey of being broken, but reassuring us with, “I know I’m gonna be all right.” Yes, this is finally the song I want from them! This is the narrative she does better than nearly everyone in music today, “I’m down, but you will NEVER break me.” Finally, here comes the song I have been waiting for! The slow build of despair, only to use it for strength instead of a weakness and give a visceral cry out in ascending confidence. Right about at 2:20 a keyboard can be heard slowly building to what I thought would be an eruption of her unbreakable spirit. Waiting for the pop…. waiting…waiting…the pop never comes and the song ends.

That is what Sound & Color was to me, waiting for the Alabama Shakes I wanted to hear and it just never came. To be clear, this album is good. They pull off the more vulnerable tracks very well. Howard emotionally exposes herself and it’s done great. I was just disappointed I didn’t get the strong, unbreakable Brittany Howard for any of this album. Perhaps, I am being way too selfish about this album. But, she has such a strong, soulful persona that just never gets unleashed, and I hated not getting to hear it.

After the first listen to the album, I felt like I was forcing myself to give it another go, which is never a good sign. Some of the tracks seemed to bleed into one another, beginnings and ends were hard to identify and middles were sometimes uncharacteristically long pauses. I occasionally looked down at my iPod to check how much longer was left, the opposite of what a great album should be. Maybe my expectations were too specific. Maybe this was a great direction for Alabama Shakes to go in. Maybe not.

Standout Tracks

Don’t Wanna Fight – I covered most of what I love already so let’s use this space to talk about something I have always wondered: Why are nearly all concert shirts black? I get the idea of a band like Metallica selling only black shirts, but someone like Prince? Make shirts so purple you can see them from outer space! Are we expecting people to wear these out to clubs or for dinner parties? I mean, the only time I wear concert shirts is to other concerts. That’s the rule right? So if you want people to notice your swag at other shows, make that shit glow-in-the-dark bright.

Miss You – Despite some cringe-worthy specific opening lyrics about a Mickey Mouse tattoo and Honda Accord to start, the track straightens out and becomes as close to Alabama Souls we get. A southern lounge singer buildup, cruising to Howard belting lyrics that make you think the microphone is straining to hold together. The audio equipment is close to losing the showdown between technology and scorned female vocals. The song feels as though it is physically shaking from the passionate screams from Howard. But, just one track isn’t enough. I want more of this type of track. They do this SO well, they shouldn’t stop.

Future People – A nice blues-rock riff that is a bit of a new experience from AS. They throw down some insane guitar fuzz effects you normally would see from the likes of Jack White. Brittany Howard uses a pretty distorted vocal track as well. Interesting song from them, while not being too far from who they are. I couldn’t tell you anything about what the song is about. I reckon about sort of the person you will become, but I never cared to hear the lyrics, I was so infatuated with the sound.

All that said with my mild disappointment, you better believe I will enjoy the shit out of seeing them at the Masonic Temple Theater in Detroit on June 3rd. I can’t wait to see how these translate live, it might drastically change my feeling towards the whole album. Live music has a way of doing that.

Listen to Miss You here (Before it somehow disappears from YouTube)

Listen to Don’t Wanna Fight here

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