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Album Review: Alabama Shakes’ ‘Sound & Colour’ is a masterpiece

When I first heard Alabama Shakes, predictably via their hit single Hold On, I spent a good deal of time thinking that they were a band from a decade or more ago, who I’d only just heard of. Their sound crossed styles and genres, and wasn’t like anything else coming out at the time. Today they release Sound & Colour, which makes 2012’s Boys & Girls look amateur.

Led by the insurmountably talented Brittany Howard, they’re one of the best bands in the world today, both on record and on stage. I’ve been lucky enough to catch them live a couple times; their energy is infectious, the atmosphere is incredible. It’s no surprise that they’ve wowed audiences ranging from Glastonbury Festival all the way up to Barack Obama.

Sound & Colour is marvellous in every way. It doesn’t show a ‘shift’ in the band’s sound; rather, a sound that has multiplied infinitely in size and range. Every track showcases a totally different style, sound and tempo. It’s all killer, no filler – and we don’t get that as often as we should.

No matter how much dance music or hip hop or indie you listen to, Alabama Shakes will make you fall in love with the guitar again and again and again. I’ve likened it to going home, after years of travelling. It’s inviting, it’s warm – immersing yourself in blues riffs, in wailing psychedelic solos, chunky distortion and gentle strums. No matter how far I stray, the guitar will be my first love.

There’s an outstanding range of textures and tones from this instrument alone. From the classic rock riffs that sway their hips on Dunesto the bright sparks and huge, distorted crunches on Future People and Gimme All Your Love, to the pop-punk churns of The Greatest, to the hazy ska-inspired riffs on Guess Who, the skill of frontwoman/guitarist Brittany Howard alongside Heath Fogg is almost incomprehensible. And that’s just the first few tracks.

There’s no warm up needed. From the first moment of title track Sound & Colour, Howard and co. draw you in to a complex, sprawling colourful world – one much bigger than we’d been privy to on Boys & Girls. The soft, yet demanding beat blends with those horns and strings, only a small taste of what’s to come.

Lead single Don’t Wanna Fight is up next. I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up in my top ten songs of the whole year. With the kind of depth and emotion that only a handful of singers can execute, there is such a deep, driving passion in every note, every screech, every whisper. The melody intertwines with the bass and rhythms to perfection, and the lyrics are nothing short of poetry. Dramatic, powerful and weak all at once, over three goddamn octaves.

From there we move onto the grunge-heavy Dunes, and the bubbly, deliberate Future People. Combining those aforementioned guitar crunches with impossibly high falsetto and chords creates the most gorgeous, huge, captivating atmosphere, and the chorus is one of my favourites of the whole album.

Themes of love and relationships pepper almost each track – mostly dealing with the end of a relationship and the aftermath. Don’t Wanna Fight is an impassioned plea for calm; Gimme All Your Love Miss You begs for affection; later on, Miss You is sad and sentimental – she thanks her ex, explaining “Maybe the stars aligned, or maybe I just changed my mind.” For every moment of strength and glory, there’s a moment of heartbreak – and you can really feel that moment like it’s your own.

This Feeling give us a little break from the explosive intensity of the first half. It’s slower and simpler, with a box-tap beat and simple acoustic guitar. There’s a kind of vulnerable, silver-lining confidence in Howard’s voice as she sings “See I’ve been having a real hard time, but it feels so nice to know I’m gonna be alright.” The track has a soft, uplifting atmosphere that just beams down on you. Straight into the “listen to these when you’re in a bad mood” playlist.

The band playfully experiment with sound, expectation and style at every opportunity, the biggest and best moments come with sonic explosions; heavy distortion peppering angelic vocals and detailed melodies; the myriad styles which, while so different, somehow blend together with pristine fluidity – from lo-fi punk on The Greatest to a relaxed Shoegaze, to a 1950s soul-inspired Miss You.

And now, for the Magnum Opus, let me draw your attention to the second last track Gemini. Six and a half minutes of earth-shatteringly expansive, obscure spaghetti western psych-blues. Eerie organs and a twangy guitar lead the way, embellished by xylophones and Doors-style organs. The vocals are totally different to everything else on the album. Static phrases and deeply captivating lyrics, and a soulful, nearly trip-hop melody. It’s just beyond anything. I don’t know if it’ll be everyone’s favourite as it’s strange, choppy, and startlingly different, but but my god.  That riff is so incredibly demanding and powerful, and as it builds and builds, and progresses along, you can’t help but find yourself completely hypnotised, drowning in a perfect sonic river.

It’s hard to follow a track like that, but the intimate, organ-infused album closer Over My Head is smooth and so beautiful. Drenched in a sweet, slow sadness, it very nearly reduces me to tears.

This album is phenomenal. The musicianship is unparalleled – we do not get to hear stuff like this every day. A genre-bending, decade-spanning, experimental and completely masterful album, I cannot recommend it highly enough.