Don’t Wanna Fight starts off innocuously enough. A bouncing guitar melody echoing from both sides, pleasant on the ears. Then the drums enter, steady and deep, more dusty hip hop sample than Stax retread, booming with purpose. Guitars step in, we’re informed that they’re up to no good. And then that squeal. The whole song is that squeal. There’s a 44 second intro and 3 minutes and nine seconds of an outro surrounding that squeal from Brittany Howard. After 2012’s very-good-but-not-quite-transcendent debut the question lingered; was this the kind of band that would fade away after some early buzz? Would they fuck around and put out a string of boilerplate follow-ups? Don’t Wanna Fight was the first single for the album as well as a sure footed answer to those questions. A resounding “no.”
As tempting as it might have been to keep cooking up Southern soul and classic rock (and when you’ve got a singer and band this good, you can skate by for quite a while with that) the Alabama Shakes have chosen to push themselves further than their debut ever hinted at. Future People rides a stumbling guitar figure propped up by jagged strummed edges, buffeted by ethereal coos before a squelching, fuzz drenched stomp descends for the chorus. Gimme All Your Love rides the airborne mortar shot of Howard’s compelling demand, “If you just GIMME ALL YOUR LOVEEEE” before landing in an organ drenched pillar of hot magma obliterating your speakers. Be careful not to snap your neck nodding along. Sound And Color is a visceral and visual album, a collection of songs that stick in your head thanks to equal measures of melodies worming their way in and riffs smacking you across the face.
The showstoppers are plentiful, but the more deliberate numbers are just as effective. The opening title track starts with a simple chord progression played on a keyboard that sounds like an organ laid over top of a children’s xylophone. Typically something like this would be pro-forma intro fodder, but it draws you in. There’s swaths of space, not quite identical in length, in between notes that makes even the simplest playing sound supernatural. It’s an aspect of playing that young bands spend years mastering (echoing the age-old complaint of young bands playing too fast) and Alabama Shakes nails it from the first track.
Album highlight Gemini is a six minute treatise on that idea, a stunner that never breaks from a plodding tempo, yet ratchets up the melodrama and dynamics regardless. The beat is almost stiffing in its consistency, never wavering, but taking long enough between snare hits to make you wonder every time if it’s actually going to land again. Sung in a D’Angelo-esque haze, it’s other-worldly mood matched by the interstellar lyrics, they aren’t just detailing a failed relationship, their blowing the world to pieces with laser-like fuzz guitar ascending from the static. There’s traces of the building blocks that made their debut sound so engaging and familiar, but its expressed in a way that is uniquely and completely theirs.
Given the prevailing tropes around sophomore albums (the slumps, the retreads, etc.) amid ascending expectations, it would have been unfair to expect Alabama Shakes to improve so much this fast. Sound And Color is that rare triumph that sees a group not only begin to master their craft, but to do it in a way that is both familiar and brand new. It’s the same group and the same voice exploding in a thousand different directions
Alabama Shakes had every opportunity to keep making boilerplate, soul-indebted rock & roll and touring their hearts out. Instead they experimented, got a little weird, and found a voice even more compelling and musically accomplished.