Consider the Alabama Shakes the torchbearers for the new retro rock. The sound’s first wave, sparked in the early 2000s by bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes (plus a thousand other groups with “The” in their names), was viewed as a rebuke of the post-grunge clogging up the late-’90s airwaves. The movement was inarguably vital to the modern rock canon, but the artists sometimes walked the very fine line between style and substance. Today, Alabama Shakes and their ilk (acts like Dawes, The War on Drugs and newcomer Matthew E. White) exist in sharp contrast to this balancing act: They can make the pop leanings of retro rock 1.0 feel studied, almost contrived, whereas their music feels desperate, searching and vital.
Sound & Color, Alabama Shakes’ follow-up to their riveting 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, is the best example of this yet. Musically speaking, it contains more feats of derring-do than a Cirque du Soleil show, and is erudite enough to excite even the most studious, skeptical ethnomusicologists. But most of all, it’s just fun, and this is no small accomplishment.
After forming in 2009 in Athens, Ala., the quartet recorded Boys & Girls in anonymity, using money scraped together from gigs as a cover band. Nothing was at stake. Now, everything is: Underdogs no more, Alabama Shakes are festival mainstays, widely recognized as the leading lights of this new wave of vintage-rock archeologists. But the baggage that often comes with sky-high expectations isn’t detectable, as Sound & Color has the same freewheeling energy of its predecessor. It’s not that the band members are aloof — they’re just that gifted. When they expand their sonic palette here — folding in the slinking pop grooves of Stevie Wonder, the spastic garage rock of MC5 and the smoldering soul of Smokey Robinson — it feels like you’re walking through a thrift store with a supermodel, where everything she tries on fits perfectly.
The album opens with a kind of prayer, a Hammond organ humming as captivating frontwoman Brittany Howard sings, “A new world hangs outside the window/Beautiful and strange/It must be I’ve fallen awake.” It’s appropriate, since what follows feels as unencumbered as a lucid dream. “Don’t Wanna Fight” is the exasperated older brother of Marvin Gaye‘s “What’s Going On,” a strutting slab of soul-funk that Howard uses to sermonize about peace, love and understanding. “Gimme All Your Love” is an explosive ballad, which sounds like an oxymoron until one hears Howard shrieking the title in a chorus so large it could fill the Grand Canyon. Self-produced by the band with help from Blake Mills (Sky Ferreira, Jesca Hoop), the record brims with the warmth and in-the-pocket instrumentation of classic Muscle Shoals tracks.
The term “chooglin’ “– generally attributed to Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty, who coined it on the band’s sophomore album, ?Bayou Country? — is synonymous with words like “strut” and “party,” but it’s primarily used to describe a kind of rhythmic potency at the heart of most classic Southern rock. And Alabama Shakes are the best chooglers in a decade. From the rolling grooves of “Shoegaze” to the slaphappy garage rock of “The Greatest,” the high-flying psych of “Gemini” and the languid acoustic funk of “This Feeling,” what Sound & Color does best is hard to describe any other way: The music chugs, boogies, churns and rolls. Among rock music of its kind, it’s one of the most muscular collections in some time, yet it accomplishes this by hardly even flexing.
This story originally appeared in the April 18th issue of Billboard.