It feels like there aren’t many bands playing guitar these days. I know this is any easy, trite complaint from an aging rocker like myself, but it does seem to be true in a day and age where Perry’s EDM monstrosity is the place to be at Lollapalooza, for example. Taking a look at the current top 10 albums in America, only 3 are from artists who play instruments: Zac Brown Band (no thanks), Taylor Swift (ditto) and Alabama Shakes. To quote Sesame Street: one of these things is not like the others.
Alabama Shakes were an unlikely success story when their debut album, Boys & Girls, put them on the map in 2012. They were a good ole’ southern bar band who’s lead singer, Brittany Howard, was delivering mail just before they willed themselves into a successful music career. Lead single “Hold On” was a smash and the album was a beautiful mix of southern rock and soul. If nothing else, it was so refreshing to see a confident young woman running the show with a guitar in her hands. Without taking anything away from the Allison Mossharts of the world, planet earth needs more females showing younger generations how to rock.
The band’s new effort, Sound & Color, takes some great risks that pay off (aside from a second album title involving an ampersand). It would have been easy to make another Lynyrd-Skynyrd-meets –Mavis-Staples Lp that would build off of their previous momentum. Instead, the Shakes made a very weird, almost anti-single type of record that relies on more on psyche-vibe than catchy hooks.
This is not to say they have pulled a Mumford & Sons and completely changed the formula, but this new album shows some great maturity of a young band coming to terms with success and the pressures that come with it.
The title track kicks off the album with a sign of things to come. Strange vibraphone and Howard’s swirling, layered vocals let us know that this won’t be Boys & Girls Part II. Lead single “Don’t Wanna Fight” comes next and shows that guitar player, Heath Fogg, is still content to freely flow between southern rock, soul and R&B while also taking his playing to another level. Although this is a key to Alabama Shakes sound, the song still comes off a bit more dark, a bit more tough than the tracks on their freshman release. Bassist, Zac Cockerel, apparently got the sessions started with the slow and slinky “Gemini”, a track the band were, at first, unsure of. After a few runs at it, though, the Athens, Alabama crew were ready to get weird with it.
Most impressive to me Sound & Color, is drummer Steve Johnson. The baseball capped stickman was perfectly solid, albeit not too flashy, on the Shakes first go around in the studio. On this album, Johnson really gets to show his ability. From the choppy, funky beats on “Sound and Color” and “Don’t Wanna Fight” to the hard rock runs on “The Greatest” to a swingy, beach feel on “Shoegaze”, this dude can play. He has certainly proved himself as one of the most important components of the band but, then again, I am a drummer. Like James Brown said, you gotta give the drummer some.
Overall, I am incredibly excited about this new Alabama Shakes album. Not only are they keeping soulful rock n’ toll alive and well, but starting to really make their own mark. It’s not an easy thing to be equally weird and accessible, but the humble, talented Shakes are just that.
Now if we could only start getting young girls to dream of becoming the next Brittany Howard instead of the next Miley Cyrus, the future of life on this planet would be in good shape.
Written by Alt360º Blogger: Jason Polakowski