It’s heartening to know that a band like Alabama Shakes can do well today. To see that a group of funky, rock n’ soul misfits – with a genuinely inventive approach – can debut at number three in the UK charts (only just behind Adele). Said debut, 2012’s raw, eclectic rocker Boys And Girls, saw the young, hitherto anonymous quartet from Athens, Alabama go on tour with Jack White and snap up three Grammy nominations.
And now their second LP, Sound & Color, has hit number three in the midweek charts – a triumph for this evolution of their garagey cocktail of soul, rock and Rn’B. Feel like they went over your head last time? Tune in now.
Firmly in the foreground is vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard; a commanding funk-soul powerhouse with a penchant for Bon Scott and Nina Simone, as comfortable with hushed tones as she is with lung-busting wails. Alabama Shakes was born when she and high school buddy/bassist Joe Cockerell started writing songs after class. Drummer Steve Johnson and guitarist Heath Fogg completed the line-up, and the band cut their teeth with Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Otis Redding covers – alongside original material. An EP was completed in 2011, an invitation to the CMJ Music Marathon followed, ears pricked up at MTV and…well, it all basically went rather well.
This time around, they don’t have the ‘new kids on the block’ edge. Circa Boys And Girls Howard was a 22-year-old truck driver with a side project called Thunderbitch. Her voice was a new, ear-grabbing revelation to listeners as Hold On hit the airwaves. In a scene of relatively few really individual, high-profile female figures, she was a proper baddass, and a new baddass at that – which made her twice as potent.
Now teamed with similarly young producer Blake Mills, Alabama Shakes are audibly bursting with can-do creative spirit. Only this time they have experience on their side. Sound & Color is less obviously rocky than its predecessor, streamlining notes of MC5, The Who and Led Zeppelin into a smorgasbord of soul, garage and Rn’B. It’s a ‘grown-up’ set, tapping into the deep, brooding end of soul; more Bobby Womack, less Oh Happy Day.
Across the board, Howard evokes Curtis Mayfield and Prince at least as much as (previous comparison) Etta James – slightly androgynous and very sweet in This Feeling, while touches of Al Green emerge in the passionate Gimme All Your Love. Elsewhere jazzy organ touches pepper the likes of Over My Head, and Don’t Wanna Fight No More is pure Mayfield-infused funky soul.
A lot is packed in, which may make Sound & Color feel less cohesive for some. As a rich, thoughtful ‘new-soul’ experience, however, it’s a stellar proposition.