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If Alabama Shakes are feeling nervous they certainly don’t show it. After the enormous success of their debut album, Boys & Girls, three years ago expectations from music critics and fans around the world for its follow-up are incredibly high. When I met them after a show last week the four Alabama natives appeared quietly confident. It helps that Sound & Color, released on April 17, exceeds its predecessor in almost every department: songwriting, production and performance. Albums this good don’t come around very often.
Sound & Color begins with the title track, its soft, pensive vibraphone chords, played by singer Brittany Howard, leading to a gently astringent soul shuffle. Over an oblique melody Howard sings:
A new world hangs outside the window,
Beautiful and strange.
It must be falling awake.
With this delicate, off-kilter song we can immediately tell that this album will not be Boys & Girls II. The heavy R&B sound of Alabama Shakes’ debut caused many people to tag them as a retro-soul band, something they always disputed, preferring “a rock’n’roll band with a lot of soul”.
“Don’t Wanna Fight” began life as a funky instrumental in the rehearsal room, proudly wearing its Meters influence on its sleeve, but after Howard came up with a killer vocal melody and some typically close-to-the-bone lyrics the song became a bona fide Shakes classic and the album’s first single:
Your lines, my lines, don’t cross them lines.
What you like, what I like, why can’t we both be right?
Attacking, defending, ’til there’s nothing left worth winning.
Your pride? My pride? Don’t waste my time.
Alabama Shakes enjoyed a meteoric rise to success, going almost immediately from being an obscure bar band in Athens, Alabama, to the toast of the charts. Boys & Girls reached No. 3 in Britain in 2012 and No. 6 in the US, eventually going gold in their homeland. Suddenly they were everywhere on TV, too, scoring high-profile appearances on Letterman, Saturday Night Live and Later... with Jools Holland, and a song was used in an ad campaign for giant jewellery retailer Zales. At the Grammys, with three nominations, Howard performed alongside Elton John, Mavis Staples and Mumford & Sons as part of a tribute to the late Levon Helm, of The Band, and effortlessly held her own in such celebrated company.
She explains how they’ve stayed sane amid all the madness of success: “I think the fact that we all grew up together and are such close friends helps keep us real grounded. We are all different people, but I think there is a common vision to really be focused on the music and the songwriting and not to get too caught up in being popular or famous. That was never why we decided to do this.”
“Dunes” and current single “Future People” are the next tracks up on Sound & Color, with both venturing into previously uncharted territory. Though still deeply indebted to soul, these songs lean towards rock with an emphasis on the roll. There are hints of The Strokes, Queen, David Bowie and Prince, filtered through the prism of the Shakes’ unerring sense of light and shade, notes and space. Like much of the album, these songs are “growers” rather than show stoppers, but after their concert, “Dunes” was stuck in my head for days.
“Gimme All Your Love” is no sneak attack – it clobbers you immediately. Here the band blends heavy soul, blues and gospel but goes deeper than they ever have before. Howard’s vocals alternate between tender cajoling and unholy hollering, and the band follows suit. Heath Fogg’s powerful fuzz guitar punches out the chorus like an entire brass section. Suddenly everything drops down to Howard’s solitary, barely strummed guitar, and time almost stands still. Slowly the track builds back up to an impressive climax, with a memorable, melodic solo from Fogg along the way. This song perfectly demonstrates how much they’ve improved as musicians and songwriters. It also started as an instrumental, with all the band contributing ideas but, truth be told, it is Brittany Howard who is often the principal creative force. She comes up with the melodies and writes all the lyrics, and her incredible voice, along with her powerful personality, always takes centre stage.
Growing up in the small town of Athens, with a population of about 21,000, finding like-minded musicians wasn’t simple. “You can go to New York and put an ad in, saying ‘I want to start an Afro beat/punk rock/glam band’ and there’s gonna be, like, 16 people that are gonna call you saying, ‘Hey, I’m into this. Let’s do rehearsals!’,” Howard told a Canadian radio program after the release of the band's first record. “Where we’re from, there’s not that. If you put an ad like that in someone will cut it out and frame it because they think it’s funny.”
Yet happily the Shakes found each other and eventually scraped together enough money from their day jobs and weekend gigs to pay for a few days’ recording a couple of hours up north in Nashville. They got an EP done then, repeating the pattern of a day or two here and there, they eventually completed their debut album over the next year. It was their song “You Ain’t Alone” being posted on the influential LA-based Aquarium Drunkard music blog in late 2011 that brought them to the attention of ATO Records, which released Boys & Girls a few months later.
After “Gimme All Your Love”, the new album continues with the beautiful and delicate “This Feeling”. Centred around acoustic guitars, it harks back to similar quiet interludes on albums by Led Zeppelin and the Stones. Next up, “Guess Who” stays on a casual tip with a gorgeous Curtis Mayfield-style melody and sweet soul groove belying its heartbreaking lyric. Steve Johnson’s drums have been practically mummified with gaffer tape and placed in an acoustically dead space, making them sound for all the world like a drum machine, though drum machines never have that kind of loose, swinging feel. Both of these songs feature strings, arranged by Howard.
Their original US and British record deals were for one album only, so when Alabama Shakes started recording Sound & Color they were once again, surprisingly, an unsigned act. Now every label in the world was waving cheques at them, and every notable producer clamouring to work with them. But they ignored all that. They booked studio time in Nashville and, like the previous time, funded the whole thing out of their own pockets, choosing a producer who was barely known, Blake Mills, after falling in love with his unorthodox first solo album. Their instinct was correct because Mills encouraged them to freely explore their sonic palette, even adding his own eclectic touches on occasion, such as the ring modulation applied to the piano on the outro of “Dunes”. Once they’d finished recording to their satisfaction, the Shakes re-signed with ATO and Rough Trade.
“The Greatest” never quite worked until Mills suggested speeding up to a punk rock tempo, whereupon it was recorded completely live in the studio, including the lead vocals. It would surprise many to learn that all four of the Shakes cut their teeth in punk bands in their teens, and here they relished the chance to let their hair down – or spike it up? – in true indie-rock style. Next comes the cruisy “Shoegaze”, its title having no relation to the mopey ’90s musical genre. Howard protests, “I didn’t even know that was a thing, I just heard the term ‘shoegaze’. I mean, I knew it was something – I didn’t know what it was.” Her song reminds me of The Velvet Underground (circa Loaded), a major influence for those ’90s bands, so maybe it’s not so far removed after all.
Howard’s lyrics are always outstanding. She describes her writing process as being engaged in a private conversation with herself. She tells me, “Writing can be intimidating because you’re not sure how much you want people to know about you. But then, that’s the point. You’re having this internal dialogue: ‘Oh, is that too much?’ It should be too much – too much is good. Too much is what gets people’s attention.
“Lyrically, there is no waste. I’m not lazy about it. I want to mean what I say and say what I mean. I like things to be kind of minimal and straight to the point – and sometimes that takes a lot of work.”
Minimal and straight to the point describes “Miss You” to a tee. Inspired by an ex named “Ricky”, Howard candidly details their dysfunctional relationship. We don’t need to meet Ricky in person to realise he is a bad penny, but Howard earns our sympathy as she struggles to turn him into something valuable. Her gospel shouts of “I’m yours!” sound triumphant and downtrodden at the same time.
The final two tracks take the album from simply great to absolutely sublime. “Gemini” – ethereal, almost funereal, jazzy, experimental – revels in its otherness. At more than six-and-a-half minutes long it still feels brief, conjuring up the unbridgeable gulf that separates us from each other. Howard’s lead vocal is harmonised with a detuned version of itself, serving to accentuate the feeling of dreamy disorientation.
The closer, “Over My Head”, defies categorisation. Nu-soul? Jazz-gospel? Its sparse backing track showcases cascading vocals, at times almost sounding a cappella. Like an agnostic hymn or a rhapsody, it celebrates the in-too-deep rapture of love, its impermanence and the fleeting nature of life itself:
Science, they explain it to me.
There’s no joy I can take with knowing what’s waiting.
Here for now but not for long,
Where will my mind slip away?
Explain that to me.
Sound & Color has intrigued, delighted and inspired me over the past month as I marvelled at how far Alabama Shakes have come since sparking into life six years ago. Four kindred musical spirits who came from nowhere to make music so good the universe almost demanded that it be heard. They’ve succeeded beyond their own and anybody else’s wildest expectations and yet the potential they still have is almost limitless. Brittany Howard sums up their approach: “I think we’re all just really into learning more, and learning how to become better musicians and better songwriters and also ... better producers. That’s kinda like our thing, you know? We like everything that has to do with the whole [process] and I just wanna get better.”
Ladies and gentlemen, this is the real thing: real music made by real musicians for right now.
• FASHION Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia
Carriageworks, Sydney, April 12-16
• VISUAL ART John Wolseley: Heartlands and Headwaters
NGV Australia, Melbourne, until August 16
• THEATRE Deathtrap
Eternity Playhouse, Sydney, until May 10
• CINEMA Audi Festival of German Films
Various venues, Sydney, May 13-28; various venues, Melbourne, May 14-31
• VISUAL ART Robert Campbell Jnr
Artbank, Sydney, until May 23
• VISUAL ART Matthew Barney: River of Fundament
MONA, Hobart, until April 13
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 11, 2015 as "Southern freed".
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