The jingling electric piano intro on “Sound & Color” had me waiting for the boom, the power chord, the hammer that would’ve crashed down had this been Alabama Shakes first record. But it never came, and I’m glad it never did. The Shakes have always been preternaturally gifted with dynamics – the loud vs. soft, the quick vs. slow — and they’ve only honed their precision and timing on this record. The suspense they build, like their growth as a band, is palpable.
Here is a track by track breakdown of the new album. Scroll down to the bottom of this review for a full album stream.
“Sound & Color” – A light but cutting introductory track that sets the tone for the entire rest of the album.
“Don’t Wanna Fight” – The buzz and click from the opening bass and guitar lick is an appetizer for the minor chord dissonance to come. It’s the rare crowd-pleasing first single that is not pandering to anyone.
“Dunes” – Sparse drums and swirling dual vocals from the transcendent Brittany Howard draw you into this psychedelic, Beatles-esque mid tempo burner. Everytime I listen to this track I hear something I didn’t hear the time before (which always turns me on as a fan).
“Future People” – As someone who is annoyed by almost all attempts at falsetto, Howard succeeds here in making her high pitch vocals spacey and mystifying instead of forced or grating. This song reaches a crescendo that is among the peaks of the entire album.
“Give Me All Your Love” – A lesson in dynamics and simplicity, this song pounds like a hammer then pulls back to a whisper. The effect is absolutely intoxicating. At the halfway point this song changes gear into an instrumental breakdown that puts to rest the question of whether this is a real band or just Brittany Howard and co.
“This Feeling” – Hand percussion, acoustic guitar and Howard’s ethereal vocals open the album’s first true ballad. After the first chorus an ambient organ fills the air with warmth. Still the band refuses to let the small, quiet tracks be small or quiet, and this beautiful song is a welcome breather from the intensity of the previous two.
“Guess Who” – This slow, ’70s soul-inspired number feels like something that should someday be playing the background of a fever dream in a Tarantino movie. It borrows heavily from criminally underappreciated bands like The Delfonics and shows just how far Alabama Shakes have come from their roots as a Led Zeppelin cover band.
“The Greatest” – If you were starting to get worried that the band had moved too far from its dirty soulful bar rock origins, you certainly aren’t alone. Listen to this track and the concern should dissipate quickly. It’s a nod, not a throwback to their past. Fast, fun as hell, loose and tight. A damn near perfect rocker.
“Shoegaze” – It felt inevitable when the twang of country rock electric guitar opened this song, until I thought about it and realized I’d never really heard it from them before (and that I wanted more.) This song conjures up some of the best country rock of the Rolling Stones on Let it Bleed, which needless to say is a very good thing.
“Miss You” – My favorite track on Alabama Shakes first album, Boys & Girls, was “You Ain’t Alone,” and this song is its natural successor. Its homesick rock of the highest order, channeling the rage, sadness and longing that we all turn to music for. Yet still there is playfulness in how the track jumps from pace to pace and volume to volume. This song, for me, is the heart of the album.
“Gemini” – Light a joint or pour a drink, close your eyes and let this song wash over you. “Gemini” is a statement, declaring that Alabama Shakes have grown up. Its layered, angst driven instrumentation creates suspense that would be as much at home on Yeezus as it would be on In An Aeroplane Over the Sea. Howard twists the knife on every word, reminding listeners that no matter how great the composition, her voice is the instrument that defines and propels this group.
“Over My Head” – The final track on Sound & Color is an apt summation. Blending the simple and the intricate on something that sounds familiar and yet still in a way otherworldly. This ballad starts out staggeringly simple and adds just enough to the organ track to say goodbye and still leave listeners wanting so much more.
I genuinely enjoyed every track on this album, but it’s not a perfect record. There are moments that are overdone, overthought and overplayed. There is conscious effort to make this album not sound like Boys & Girls which, while necessary, sometimes goes too far to the point of being plainly noticeable. That said, as someone who has been with this band from the beginning and worried deeply about this album during the 3+ years it took to make, this is an astounding achievement by a young band in this era. Making a cohesive, artistic album which is less mainstream than your last and lacks singles is the polar opposite of today’s formula and Alabama Shakes should be saluted for bucking the system in such an impressive, sprawling and beautiful manner.