Alabama Shakes is intriguing. The name alone is an enigma, begging the question: What exactly is Alabama shaking? Or, even weirder, does Alabama have the shakes? Does any of this relate to milkshakes? (In the case of the latter, Kelis must be brought into the picture.) There are endless possibilities.

Sound & Color

A
Alabama Shakes
Rough Trade Records


But what’s definitively alluring about these southern charmers is, you guessed it, the music. It remains just as mystifying as their name, rife with gritty guitars, soulful vocals and a bluesy-throwback aura. Lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard formed the group back in 2009, and its first album, Boys & Girls, produced the likes of “Hang Loose” and “Hold On,” two of the band’s biggest hits to date. Its sophomore release, Sound & Color, takes the band a step further — a fitting, slightly modern departure from nostalgia-driven songwriting. Slow, experimental rock grooves permeate almost every tune, and it’s a mighty beautiful thing.

The title track, “Sound & Color,” is no exception. It combines the eerie irresistibleness of alt-J with the inherent R&B of Howard’s vocals — unexpected peanut butter and jelly. “Gemini” is perhaps the most avant-garde, with its minimalistic guitar and dark, otherworldly vocals. Both songs lend to an oddly techno deviation for the band, but Howard’s gruff timbre eases the transition, bringing the listener right back to the roots of the band and of good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll. We’ll call it southern-fried unconventionality.

“Don’t Wanna Fight” is a clear standout; it’s the musical interpretation of getting in a fight with the love of your life — angry, raw and repetitive, but still so sexy. Howard’s yawp is perfect for songs like this, ones that summon the singer to splash her soul onto the recording like an angry girlfriend splashes vodka on a much-too-dry, foul-mouthin’ boyfriend. Do your thing, Britt.

In the vein of girl power and the like, “The Greatest” brings out refreshingly revved-up energy — a Ramones-esque, driving punk beat supports the hardest rock song on the album. This style shockingly suits Alabama Shakes. No worries, though, because Sound & Color has plenty of cool-down melodies like “Dunes” and “Shoegaze” to mellow you out without sacrificing that signature rock aesthetic. Both sound like cruising around in the summer, windows rolled down, hair blowing every kind of way.

And you can actually hear the breeze in the background of “This Feeling,” a wispy, acoustic number that draws much from Van Morrison, king of chill. It’s a beautiful and intimately emotional love song, weaving a delicate story with patience and soul. This is the virginal twin to its lusty predecessor, “Gimme All Your Love,” an intensely sultry recording that explodes after a falsetto intro and never really calms down (lucky for us). Once again, Alabama Shakes proves they can try on any pair of jeans and look good. Yep, they’re those people.

“Guess Who” and “Future People” toy around with interesting harmonies and jazzy chords, while “Miss You” is perhaps the epilogue to one of the album’s alluded themes: one grand romance. Howard sings: “I’m gonna miss you and your Mickey Mouse tattoo.” (Poor bastard.) The song’s got amazing crescendos, drunken bar piano, lagging, traditional blues beats with modern touches and smoky guitars. It’s all too much but it’s all too great. And then “Over My Head” ends the journey with a surprisingly soft, slow groove. Howard’s mantra, “Loving so deeply, I’m in over my head,” echoes as it’s layered in different keys, brought up at different times.

Alabama Shakes seems as though it’s of a different time. As for Sound & Color? It’s a radical, prodigious beast of the rock/soul/et cetera crossover breed. Most importantly, though, it’s a modern beast, and therefore a fearless one. Rock musicians ought to take note: Be bold, move forward. Maybe someday you’ll make people shake like Alabama.

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