WVAU’s #7 Album of 2015: "Sound & Color" by Alabama Shakes

Ian Evans

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Courtesy of Consequence of Sound

Although Pitchfork might‰’ve thought themselves too progressive or cool to include Sound and Color in their list of the 50 best albums of 2015, WVAU did not. Let‰’s face it, though, Alabama Shakes’ 2012‰’s debut Boys and Girls made waves the twenty-something-year-old band could hardly deal with. When I first heard there was a new album, I was skeptical that they could ever come within leagues of the band‰’s first effort. But I‰’m here to tell you there was no sophomore slump for Alabama Shakes. The intelligent reenvisioning of their soulful roots  was one of the most well-crafted releases of 2015.

Sound and Color is about as versatile as a late Beatles album but with only one songwriter with about twice the vocal ability. The first four songs are similar tempo-wise. The album starts off with some solemn chords from a marimba (not what you‰’d expect) in “Sound & Color.” Drums and bass slink along to join the marimba with a shuffle type groove. The instrumentation features some cello and violins as well as many harmonizing vocal tracks. Although we are immediately struck with more instruments than there have ever been in an Alabama Shakes song, the track doesn‰’t feel cluttered because the parts are integrated so well.

Next up is the mega-hit, “Don‰’t Wanna Fight followed by the luscious guitar riff in “Dunes.” Everything seems so precise in this song: Guitar, bass, and drums play the bare minimum of their parts until they repeat a riff and the sound gets sour and full of static. Brittany Howard slides and cascades in her upper register in the verse of “Future People‰Û. We are jolted back to earth with the monumental buzzing of some ungodly distorted bass or synth that is accompanied by the yelling of “Give a little‰Û, “Take a Little‰Û. The effect creates a cool juxtaposition between the verse and chorus. The foolproof and successful plan of “Gimme All Your Love‰” is to create a nice band groove and have Brittany belt her heart out. It works swimmingly until the band kicks into a quicker tempo and Heath Fogg breaks into a guitar solo. Then the band proves to you the song gets better than you could have ever expected.

“This Feeling‰” comes at a welcome point in the album. The acoustic guitar and soft drumming meet the ear so softly. Overall, Brittany Howard‰’s falsetto combines with all of these elements to make an incredibly bright and soulful song. The quiet church organ and orchestra in the background almost puts it over the top, but together they create a buttery warmth on the insides.

It‰’s hard to explain why “Guess Who‰” works so well, but I do really like the lyric “I gather myself safely in, till life on earth looks warm again‰Û. This demonstrates the lyrical prowess of Brittany Howard in 2015. While the lyrical tone of Boys and Girls was more heart-on-sleeve and raw, Sound and Color feels more mature and controlled. “The Greatest‰” is just Alabama Shakes showing off their versatility. The song is the only uptempo number on the album although the band skips around many with feels and tempos, all with the help of great vocal hooks

The two songs on the album most reminiscent of their debut are “Shoegaze‰” and “Miss You‰Û. The first lurches with a classic Creedence-like groove reconfigured for the 21st century. Heath Fogg twirls and colors the track with a wobbly guitar sound. “Miss You‰” sounds like it was written with the songs on Boys and Girls and does what those songs do best. Brittany Howard gives a mythical lo-fi performance while the band supports her beautifully.

As the only song clocking in over five minutes, “Gemini‰” reminds us how far the band has come musically. Vocals are echoey and ethereal. Bass and drums thud sparsely to carry the time. Then the synth or guitar (I can‰’t really tell what it is) comes in, and the music intensifies. “Over My Head‰” ends the album nicely with an organ-heavy tune that shows off the vocals once again. Howard is tracked about eight times to combine to create harmony and sing in a beautiful round.

One thing that strikes me when I listen to the album is the attention to dynamics. In an age where loud music attacks us- on the radio, on tv, in department stores- Alabama Shakes refreshingly reminds us of one of the most underused tools in artists‰’ repertoires. “Miss You‰” relies on the gradual build up from the band and “Gimme All Your Love‰” fluctuates between a loud phrase and a quiet one. Similarly, Sound and Color shows the magnitude of Brittany Howard‰’s voice the way Boys and Girls never did. She floats beautifully above the instrumentation in “Future People.” No Alabama Shakes album would be complete without an adequate dose of Howard‰’s passionate, tear-jerking yelling displayed in most of the tracks. And Howard sounds terrific in “Over My Head‰” when they stack her vocals again and again.

If there were any complaints aired about the young band‰’s first release, it was that it was too monotone, too southern, or too predictable. Whether or not you like Sound and Color you‰’d have to agree that they didn‰’t fall into the same trap. Alabama Shakes proclaimed that they are not a band about which people will say “every song sounds alike‰” or “they should switch it up.” Every song there seems to be a different drum sound or cool guitar tone. Many songs feature many different instruments and layers of production on the vocals. Although they have changed and reconfigured their style so much in Sound and Color, they have showed us that no level of studio production, fame or fortune can dilute the soul that makes their music great.