With their debut album, 2012’s Boys & Girls, Alabama Shakes reminded people what gritty rock ’n’ soul used to sound like, before music got all cold and digital. The album earned singer and guitarist Brittany Howard comparisons to Janis Joplin and Robert Plant, and it garnered three Grammy nominations, vaulting these Alabama rockers into the big leagues. Their sophomore record, Sound & Color, is less about recreating ‘60s and ‘70s sounds than it is about revisiting the spirit of possibility that existed in those decades. It’s a flight-of-fancy record, and fans happily came along for the ride.
When Sound & Color landed in April 2015, it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart dated May 9, 2015, and sent smitten critics reaching for words like “weird” and “experimental” to describe what they were hearing. If the Shakes had played it a little safe on their first LP, simply committing to tape the retro-minded rock songs they’d perfected as a live band, they took some risks with this second set. That was apparent with lead single “Don’t Wanna Fight,” a slinky funk-soul number that finds Howard doing exactly what she’s always done — sing her guts out — but in a whole new way.
The sonic switcheroo has a lot do with how Sound & Color came together. Working with producer Blake Mills (Conor Oberst, Fiona Apple), the band recorded for more than a year, building the tracks in the studio rather than cutting road-tested material. If they were lacking direction, they had plenty of inspiration and ambition. Across these 12 songs, the Shakes fold funky soul into buzzing psychedelia (“Future People”), sweet acoustic fare (“This Feeling”), avant-garde neo-soul (“Gemini”), and numerous other mutant sounds indebted to the past yet undeniably modern. When Howard, also Billboard Women In Music’s “Powerhouse” honoree of 2015, sings, “I’m in over my head” on the final track, she’s definitely not talking about the state of her art. The Shakes are floating ahead nicely, en route to places even they probably haven’t imagined.