Album Review: Alabama Shakes, ‘Sound & Color’
"Good artists borrow," goes a popular saying, while "great artists steal." The saying -- widely mis-attributed to painter Pablo Picasso and distorted in context to justify creative effort that lacks originality -- has a more common variant that goes something like, "Well, every artist borrows from someone -- I mean, by now there aren't any original stories/melodies/ideas anyway, right?"
Wrong -- and if you want proof, just take 47 minutes and sit down with the Alabama Shakes' sophomore album, Sound & Color.
To be clear, the Alabama Shakes make a slew of references to vintage soul, R&B and rock. You could even argue that their 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, struck a nerve as much for its retro sheen as for the Athens, Ala.-based quartet's overall spirit and attitude. But on Sound & Color, the Shakes elevate their game from wearing influences on their collective sleeve to internalizing those influences and making them their own. Yes, there are several points where you'll recognize licks and phrasings modeled after classic songs -- too many to list here -- but this time around the band manages to shed new light on every influence it draws from.
Producer Blake Mills (Sky Ferriera, Sara Watkins and a host of others as a session guitarist) gives the album a dusty, warped -- though also clear and lifelike -- feel that recalls Tchad Blake and Mitchell Froom's string of experimental records with Los Lobos. Like Blake and Froom, Mills proves that there are infinite ways to put a modernist stamp on roots music. Of course, the band itself does its part too, with each player reaching down and committing authoritative performances to tape. With his signature downtempo groove, for example, drummer Steve Johnson drags the music back and gives the music its unhurried cadence -- as vital an aspect of the band's "voice" as frontwoman Brittany Howard's presence.
Much like the Black Crowes did on their sophomore effort, 1992's Southern Harmony and Musical Companion, the Alabama Shakes confidently and unequivocally assert their creative powers on Sound & Color. As such, the emphasis shifts from the band's focus on tone to the heart and spirit at the center of the songs themselves. "I want to touch a human being," frontwoman Brittany Howard sings on the album's title track. When you listen to Sound & Color, you'll feel like you're doing just that -- or at least like you're in the presence of four human beings actually making music in a room.
Last time, it felt like you were going through their record collection. This time, it feels like those four people are sweating grit and realness and practically breathing down your neck. It's hard to think of anything more to ask from a record.