Feb 15, 2016

#ICYMIMonday: Sound & Color - @AlabamaShakes; A Niles P. Joint

Since it’s Grammy Monday (which is within Black History Month of course,) we have a very special edition of #ICYMIMonday for you.  There’s a Black music clause in the contracts of the WTM staff that allows us to cover one non hip hop act per quarter so long as they’re Black.  I used this to cover Lianne La Havas awhile back and now I’m invoking it to cover the Alabama Shakes’ sophomore album Sound & Color.  Nominated for multiple Grammys this year, the band functions extremely well as a unit and respect is due.  But its driving force is undoubtedly the lead singer & guitarist Brittany Howard. This isn’t going to be a standard album review from me as much as it will be a study in Black Girl Magic.  

First, understand this about Brittany Howard.  She didn’t join the band on a whim midway through their success and wasn’t installed by an enterprising record exec. She did however write her own songs and teach herself to play three instruments all before linking up with Heath Fogg & Zac Cockrell (future guitarist & bassist for the band) in high school.  The jam sessions she organized and hosted at a relative’s house eventually drew drummer Steve Johnson.  Keyboardist Ben Tanner came later.  All of this was done to escape the doldrums of small town living in Athens, Alabama and while she was simultaneously working as a fry cook & postal worker.  If you can’t tell by now, Brittany Howard is a muhfuckin’ beast.

You'll immediately notice that other than maybe the general rock category, this album doesn’t stick to one genre throughout.  You can attribute this to Howard being musically influenced by an eclectic-ass mix of David Bowie, Bon Scott, & Nina Simone.  No matter how this album was sequenced, you'd wind up with two songs that are completely different in sound.  So you’ll have the title track, essentially a spacey slow jam, right next to the rambunctious strained relationship anthem Don’t Wanna Fight.  Really the band could’ve repeated the style of these two songs throughout and everyone would have been satisfied.  Howard’s vocals ranging from soft to boisterous in the span of two songs only scratches the surface.

Dunes transitions from blues to thunderous rock on the same track.  Following this with a shrill yet comforting falsetto on Future People works better than anyone could've imagined.  This sets up for a home run in Gimme All Your Love.  The yearning in her voice, especially in the chorus, is palpable as she pleads with her lover to open up to her more.  About two-thirds in, the instrumental switches to guitar-driven soul to close out.  After such an emotional rollercoaster, This Feeling is a welcome & calming acoustic jam.  

Guess Who would feel right at home on a lite FM station or an independent arthouse movie alike.  Naturally the band switches the tempo entirely for The Greatest, which masterfully mixes elements of punk rock energy with an almost almost 1950’s rock sound.  The cross generational combination is another stroke of genius that many listening have come to expect at this point.  They explore yet another style with Shoegaze, which borrows from the late 80’s and early 90’s UK-based subgenre of the same name.  

The last quarter of the album starts with the bluesy Miss You.  The track will be praised for raucous guitar chords but pay close attention to the understated piano.  The album is due for an epic and gets one in the nearly seven minute long Gemini.  They experiment with vocal effects that persuasively create a lucid ambiance.  The album closes with Over My Head.  Going back into accessible love themes, Howard talks about “Loving so deeply, I’m in over my head” over a medley of electric piano, cymbals, and handclaps.  The album goes out with a hushed bang.  


Is it possible for someone to be simultaneously critically acclaimed and underrated?  Alabama Shakes have been nominated for  and won a slew of awards while garnering stacks of positive review.  And Brittany Howard gets to perform at the Grammys and also won Billboard’s Women in Music Powerhouse Award, which is the most accurate title one could give. This is a woman who created her own lane by fusing multiple genres together while still creating a cohesive sound and has managed to do so for two albums, not to mention fronting a side project with the band Thunderbitch.  I alluded to Black Girl Magic and Brittany Howard exemplifies it as much as fan favorites BeyoncĂ© and Rihanna.  The fact that she’s more in the rock market might unfairly keep her off the radar of some.  But listen, if there’s one person that could defy musical barriers and cross over, it’s her.  Hell, she did it on multiple albums.  Nothing’s impossible for her.
Niles Cavanaugh
Niles Cavanaugh

Multimedia Journalist, Founder and Chief Editor of WTM Host of A-Side B-Side Podcast and more. I like to talk about stuff and write it down. Sometimes to a microphone. Either way, I need you to feel this.

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