By Roy Trakin.
Alabama Shakes, Sound & Color (ATO)
If you were wondering what it was like to go from being a humble postal worker delivering the mail in rural Alabama to fronting a critically acclaimed, world-class rock band in less than six years, take a listen to force of nature Brittany Howard on the opening title track to their chart-topping second album, co-produced with Blake Mills, purring: “A new world hangs/Outside the window/beautiful and strange/It must be I’ve fallen awake.”
Howard needn’t bother pinching herself, either, because things are only going to get better after a follow-up to their multi-Grammy nominated debut that takes their elemental roots sound into strange new territory.
No longer merely Big Brother and the Holding Company to Howard’s fulsome Joplin, guitarist Heath Fogg, hirsute co-founder/bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson come into their own on the new material. Take a listen to the pulsating “Future People,” which couches Howard’s aching falsetto and self-fulfilled prophecy (“Imagine the sound/and listen loud and then/You’ll reach that top”) in all-enveloping pumping electronic fuzz tones, or the full-throttle whisper-to-a-scream “Gimme All Your Love,” in which those strangulated pleadings are supplemented with gently plucked guitar strings and Ben Tanner’s swirling keys, a nice bookend to first single, “Don’t Wanna Fight.”
Elsewhere, the band shows what it’s capable of, from the yearning soul of “This Feeling” and the lilting island Marvin Gaye shuffle of “Guess Who” (with its breezy string arrangement) to the psychedelic punk of “The Greatest,” which goes from “White Light White Heat” speed-metal rush to “California Sun” Ramones-style to Brill Building “Stand by Me” pop in the course of its very eventful 3:50, with its unabashed plea, “Come on love me! Come on!”
“Shoegaze” is a Stones-ish, twangy rocker that celebrates carnal delights and religious uplift in not-so-equal measure (“Can’t wait for night to come/That’s when the fun/Really begins… Jesus. He’s waiting on me/Just as he always does/Something will be coming up/Just like it always does”), while “Miss You” is a “Love in Vain”-style entreaty that Howard brings all the way home like the larger-than-life modern-day blues mama she plays on-stage, Tanner’s tickling piano goosing the action. “I’m yours, I’m yours, I’m yours…”
The moody, deliberate “Gemini” offers a shimmering, cosmic view of the sun, moon, stars and planets, Brittany chanting to a primitive beat with oozing sensuality to spare over an eerie, high-pitched Frippertronic buzz: “Oh, how we saw in each other everything.”
The closing “Over My Head” ends on a gentle note that promises a return: “I’m never saying goodbye.” And thank goodness for that. By reshuffling the primal elements of rock ‘n’ roll, Alabama Shakes have made something that sounds brand-new, and leaves plenty of room for more.