The critical and commercial success of Sound & Color proves that bucking expectations — though littered with challenges — is the creative path most worth taking.
One of the most hotly anticipated releases of 2015, Alabama Shakes’ sophomore effort is a radical departure from the retro-suffused blend of garage rock, bluesy roots rock and Southern soul that made its predecessor, 2012’s Boys & Girls, one of the most talked about debuts of recent memory.
Sound & Color is a victory for the future of rock ’n’ roll
Conspicuously absent from Sound & Color is the quartet’s obsession (cue tearjerker “You Ain’t Alone”) with the iconic soul music that emerged from Muscle Shoals, Ala., throughout the ’60s and early ’70s. Instead, the Shakes’ boldly and unexpectedly embrace the 21st century by erecting alien patterns of voice, guitar, drums, bass and keyboards awash in psychedelia, shoegaze and electronica.
As for lead singer, guitarist and songwriter Brittany Howard, she sounds less like a young Aretha Franklin and more like the spiritual sister of alt-R&B iconoclast FKA twigs. Howard’s vocals, while still passionate and heartfelt, have also become complex, gnarled and experimental. Her voice propels a band, that, let’s face it, has no peer when it comes to making music as cool and far out as “Gimme All Your Love” or the crazy, trippy “Gemini.”
There’s simply no denying the entrancing potency of Sound & Color
Last June, Howard, who has been known to listen to everything from classical music to Erykah Badu and shaggy proto-punks MC5, opened up to the NME about the motivations behind Sound & Color. “This record is a lot more exploratory,” she explained. “We got the money, we got the time, so we just came up with some stuff. Let’s make something we like. It’s as simple as that. It’s here and now instead of trying to repeat what we’ve already done because what are you learning if you make the same thing over and over again?”
It’s a daring move to switch up the sound that initially made the Alabama Shakes stars, and one that few modern rock ’n’ roll bands have taken. The fear of alienating fans with the new and unfamiliar scares a lot of musicians into clinging to the tried and tested. Yet there’s simply no denying the entrancing potency of Sound & Color. It may be, as Exclaim!’s Andrea Warner pointed out, a “deliberately weird record,” but it’s a weirdness that’s bold, beautiful, and utterly original.
It’s for these reasons that the album (the very antithesis of a “sophomore slump”) has wound up outperforming the ensemble’s beloved Boys & Girls. In addition to debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 when it was released in April 2015, Sound & Color has racked up a remarkable sixGrammy nominations. They are: Best Rock Performance (“Don’t Wanna Fight”); Best Rock Song (“Don’t Wanna Fight”); Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical; Best Alternative Music Album; Producer of the Year, Non-Classical (Blake Mills); and Album of the Year, a category that also includes Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness.
The Future of Rock ‘n’ Roll
But the success of Sound & Color isn’t just a win for Alabama Shakes. In terms of creativity and diversity, it also is a victory for the future of rock ’n’ roll. The genre in recent years has gained a reputation as one geared toward middle-aged white guys nostalgic for the classic sounds of the 1960s and ’70s. This is the essential argument made in a slew of think pieces and books, including music critic Simon Reynolds’ insightful Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. It certainly is a harsh critique, somewhat unfair perhaps, yet there’s no denying that a good deal of rock’s current trends (stoner rock, garage rock, hippie-flavored folk-rock and so on) all lean heavily on vintage sounds.
So, too, did Alabama Shakes when they first achieved stardom in 2012 — but then they unleashed the game-changing Sound & Color, solid proof that young and upcoming musicians don’t need to genuflect before old school rock to succeed. They can thrive by producing music that’s fresh, exciting and, most importantly, cutting edge.
Not only that, the Shakes, an integrated band from the South and led by a powerful and supremely talented biracial woman, serve as an inspiring reminder that in order for rock to remain a vital artistic expression, it must bravely cut across race and gender boundaries that continue to divide this country.
That is a lot of gravitas to place upon the band’s shoulders — obviously. But as they have already proven over the last few years, Alabama Shakes are experts in handling the pressures of expectations.