Perhaps the modern revival of Southern Rock, especially compared to its cousins in the broader rock genre, is down to its genuine self-confidence and a combination of seasoned artists getting their commercial dues (Black Keys, the solo Jack White) then buoyed by new acts keen to maintain momentum. Alabama Shakes stood out with their 2012 debut Boys & Girls through a unique combination of lead singer Brittany Howard’s outstanding soulful voice and an assured, scaled down sound not too dissimilar to early Kings of Leon. Three years later their follow-up Sound & Color is a wonderfully eccentric and progressive album that allows you to fall in love with them once again.
Resisting immediately returning to the studio appears to have worked in their favour. Within the three year gap between releases Alabama Shakes haves calmed down without conceding impact. The opening three tracks feel calmer, more placated. Even ‘Don’t wanna fight’, the funk-flavoured lead single, sounds as though the band barely mustered the energy for that recording. Howard’s strained shriek at the beginning is perfectly evocative of someone “attacking, defending, until there’s nothing left worth winning.” What’s particularly noticeable going through the album is how every element of the band is given room to breathe; a dull, finger-plucked bass or a reverbed guitar are given equal opportunity to carry our attention. This never would have happened during their first effort, where they were just short of banging pots to keep our heads turned their direction.
Maybe it was a tad cliché to say that the band separate themselves with a female vocalist, but they do. Aside from offering the welcome female perspective in a genre filled with Mommas and Baby Girls, mother of God – that voice. Sultry, rampaging, sunny, pained, composed, despaired; she can do it all. She get to use it too as the album sleekly slips into full eclecticism in the second half. From the Southern Gothic tinged ‘Gimme all your love’ to the Tracy Chapman-esque ‘This Feeling’ you can hear the band subtly, but steadfastly, evolve. Then ‘Guess Who’ comes on, sounding like sped-up Bossa Nova. Had anyone told them that second albums are supposed to be difficult? A late centrepiece comes in the form of ‘Gemini’, a disorientating walk through the apocalyptic wake of a landscape either biblical, romantic, or social. Her last words ‘I gave you everything’ hangs in the air, open to interpretation as the song drags itself on until there is no oxygen left.
Their debut was unique enough that even after this amount of time they could be justified in repeating themselves a little bit. While this is undoubtedly the same band as back then, Alabama Shakes have done enough on these twelve tracks to establish a standard for peers to follow.