Three years after their now-classic, 500,000-copies-sold debut Boys & Girls, the invincible Alabama Shakes have returned with Sound & Color. Our staff spent the last week spinning the album (thanks for the early stream yet again, NPR!) and emailing about it as we went. Listen via Spotify below, purchase on iTunes, and enjoy the latest Fuse listening party.
Taylor Brown: After a few listens, the thing that keeps me coming back is the production. There's a lot of good songs on here from a writing perspective, but this record just sounds so fucking good. The coolest thing is that every instrument on every song gets at times a radically different sonic approach as the album moves along. The drums go from wide room to tight and punchy; vocals go from bright and present to muffled and high-cut. It's all about what each song needs. It's no surprise to find out Blake Mills produced this. He's a master of his craft, and track-by-track, he brings out nuance without burying anything. He's perfectly judicious with reverb, giving this album that super-tight Muscle Shoals vibe with top notch fidelity to boot. And that bass fuzz on "Future People," holy shit, that is how it is DONE. A lot of care went into this record. I'm into it.
Zach Dionne: You know when you're at work but you're really trying to (and dying to) process a long-awaited album? Usually it's not too tough—I mean, we all do it at least a few times a week. But I keep getting like three, four songs in and clicking back to the start because I don't want to miss anything. I really need to just go home and shut my eyes and listen to this beast on the stereo twice in a row—it really deserves it. And it's gonna get that treatment. Tonight. I hope. (I have Mad Men and Louie and Game of Thrones to deal with, here, guys.)
One aspect I don't have to be totally in the zone to process is what Taylor's saying about the production. Boys & Girls was very no-frills rock 'n' soul, and it was amazing for that. But this is the kind of sophomore album that's only interesting in upping the ante, swerving four lanes over, and then adding two more lanes to weave in and out of. You can tell instantly, from the first few seconds—the bells, the beat, Brittany's voice and lyrical content—that things are very different here.
I'm gonna say more because Brittany Howard is amazing enough to qualify Alabama Shakes as an actual godsend of a band...but for now I'm listening to the album and listening to you guys.
Jeff Benjamin: The opening kind of threw me off, I was sort of like, What kind of elevator music is this? I wasn't expecting a chime-laden track to open the new album by what's supposed to be the new "it" rock band, but I think it set the stage for an experimental record and showed that the Shakes aren't going to be pinned into any corner.
Even on a "rocky"-sounding cut like "Don't Wanna Fight," Brittany Howard opens with a screechy whistle note (for lack of a better description) and then there's a chorus line that recalls a grittier Earth, Wind & Fire. There's really so many moments that just make this stick out past "rock." The weird, sliding guitar licks on "Dunes," the mix of Motown and the White Stripes on "Gimme All Your Love," the fact that "This Feeling" sounds like a new-age soul-rock classic. It's not what you expected, but somehow exactly what you wanted. Does that make sense?
Maritza Navarro: “Not what you expect, but exactly what you want” makes perfect sense and sounds like a good lover to me…and that’s what this album feels like. A rough-around-the-edges, throw you around, good-time lover who actually wants to cuddle you afterward. It's a real rock band welded, by the flames of musical technicians, with a softer, doo-wop throwback vibe.
Zach Dionne: I don't think I can top that, M. What I can do is take a second to drool over the album's one super-sized cut, the six-and-a-half-minute "Gemini." It's stoner doom metal cross-bred with one of Ennio Morricone's Western scores and poured through Brittany's brilliant mind. Then it goes into "Over My Head," which closes the album with the ethereal instrumentation that "Sound & Color" actually kicked it off with. This is one of those records that will completely trip you out if you listen on repeat—the last track melts back into the first wayyyy too well for it to have been a coincidence.
Maritza Navarro: This is definitely the album you listen to again and realize you didn’t hear the song at all the first time you played it. You sort of just experience the way if makes you feel; then a second listen helps unwrap the layers of melodies when each song progresses. One of the things I love is that almost every song evolves into something else before it ends, not just a bridge, but an actual island on the other side of that bridge with a change of key and tempo...before you’re brought back to the to the other side of it, like in “Gimme All Your Love.” I can’t even get into how much I love strings, but the way they are folded in to build “This Feeling” into a spiritual experience, and the way they add the perfect amount of zest to “Guess Who” is, just, ugh...perfect.
But despite how many times I listen to the brilliant instrumentation throughout the album, I can’t get over her voice. Brittany Howard’s vocals sail over the music, filling all the empty spaces with screams, coos and sounds where I couldn’t immediately decide if they coming from a woman (a la Antony and the Johnsons) or even a human. I mean, I’ve heard scatting before, but is there a word for harmonica-sounds? For the first few measures of “Future People” I thought I was listening to a harmonica until she enunciated the next two words. Tone, technical precision and breath-training aside, you can’t teach someone to sing like this. Emotive vocals at their best. Brittany's a true...emocalist?