Review Summary: Old souls live again
Real soul is becoming increasingly hard to come by in modern music. Between every stinking handful of Usher clones, to exhausted rappers whose posse never had the guts to tell their boy his attempts at neo soul on track 14 should only have to be endured by those within earshot of the shower, there is no shortage of pseudo soulful noise heavy-handedly squeezing the genre for a few filler track quickies. But they are really not the ones to blame here. The recent craving for rapid gratification has got the genre pinned in a corner like an abusive father. I’ll grant there is a little bit of room still left to cower in (John Legend stands out) but gone are the days where artists like Alicia Keys or Mariah could flourish. If you need evidence (other than Mariah’s career) look no further than Beyonce’s musical arc. Compare I Am... Sasha Fierce with her newest fare and you can hear the shift. Gone are the time and pacing necessary to make a properly R&B song; in are beats which are made to be as striking and virulent as science can possibly formulate and lyrics which are meant to be swallowed, not chewed.
So here we have Alabama Shakes, whose moderate popularity stands in defiance of current trends. What they've created in Sounds and Color is an uncompromisingly authentic, full bodied release with wide emotions and variety. While classics like the aforementioned Alicia or B to progenitors like Toni Braxton leaned on a more poppy sound, Alabama Shakes tips their hat more towards classic rock, jazz rock and traditional R&B aesthetics. Take for instance the Jimi Hendrix-esque psychedelics on “Dunes”, James Brown influence on “Don’t Wanna Fight” and the falsetto bursts on “Gimmie All Your Love” which remind me a bit of Robert Plant on “What is And What Should Never Be”. Yet it’s all so easy to listen to, front to back. The album establishes short runs of mood for the listener to fall into and enjoy but can quickly shift direction. The first part of the album is funkier, but fades away into a more soulful, slower pace with “This Feeling”. It then wakes you up with the Stones-inspired rambling rock tunes like “Shoegaze” before finishing with appropriately two-faced “Gemini” and the soaring gospel of “Over My Head”. Every style is competently executed and at no point did I find fault with any of the interpretations. That being said, it makes for a bit of a disjointed listen as the tones and really all over the place. While variety isn't inherently bad, there’s just a bit too much stylistically here for me. While the changes kept things fresh, a bit more of a focused approach wouldn't have hurt.
Despite the influence, it’s clear the soulfulness is still the bread and butter of the album. It’s quite admirable how they manage to capture the essence of these classic artists without losing their own soulful touch in the shuffle. The instrumentation and production is solid, doing a great job of recreating old ambiance and providing interesting moments/complementation. But obviously, the laurels have to go to front woman Brittney Howard. She has a powerful and distinctive voice with incredible range which really shines on the ample time where the band just lets her loose on the track (noticeably on “Gimmie All Your Love” or “Miss You”). But she proves adaptable as well, from more tender moments like “This Feeling”, thundering falsetto on “Don’t Wanna Fight” or “Future People” and with heavy vocal modulation on “Dunes”. She firmly stamps her mark on any song she’s on and provides a concrete spine of identity where lesser vocalists would be washed out by current of influence.
Sound and Color is a rich palette of sonic ambition, complemented by one of the most capable voices of modern music. Perhaps every step in the veritable compass rose of directions they go made me a bit directionally confused, the ambition, effort and execution has to be applauded. While it's not really advancing the genre, it's a refreshingly uncompromising and contemplative interpretation of the genre, willing to sacrifice pace or mass appeal for an authentic atmosphere to great effect.