Saturday, December 12, 2015

album review: 'sound & color' by alabama shakes

You know, for as much as I say I like blues rock, I don't really cover a lot of it. And for the past few weeks I've been wondering why and I think my answer is that I've got a very specific type of blues rock I enjoy. Dark, moody but with strong hooks, dirty production but not so fuzzed out and lo-fi that you lose the deeper textures, a solid sense of groove, and writing that can rise above some of the unfortunate cliches of the genre. And when you hold so much of it to a high standard like that, you tend to find a lot of bands don't really hold up as well as you'd like.

Take, for instance, Alabama Shakes - although, yes, you could definitely make the argument they're more soul than blues rock, which the band is always canny to sidestep. Now I was planning on covering Sound & Color months ago - the critical reviews were suggesting it was a great record from an upstart act with one hell of a frontwoman in Brittany Howard. But when I dug up their debut album... well, it wasn't that it was bad but I was definitely underwhelmed. Part of this was production that really could have afforded to give them a little more texture and crunch, part of it was writing I didn't think was all that stellar, and part of it was compositions that frankly weren't pushing anything. It was a reasonably solid release and again, Brittany Howard can sing her ass off, but I wouldn't go any further than that.

So fast-forward to now, and Alabama Shakes' sophomore debut has apparently won so much critical acclaim it's up for a Grammy. Now it's not going to win that Grammy - all the signs speak to either Kendrick Lamar or Taylor Swift winning for Album of the Year - but it was enough to think that maybe I hadn't given this band a fair shake. So I decided to dig up Sound & Color and try again - what did we get?

Well, it is better than their debut, but the more I listened through Sound & Color I kept searching for moments that would grab me more deeply and I don't feel I got those, pretty much across the board. It's far from a bad record - it definitely took more steps to defining its own blend of blues and soul, and there are some powerful tracks - but it feels like for every positive step in the writing or presentation we get a half-step back, leading to a very good album, but not quite a great one, at least for me.

And I think the best place to start for a change is the songwriting, because here I honestly have the least complaints. Yeah, the writing isn't exactly revolutionary - we're not talking about the layers of metaphor or thematic cohesion that we got with Hozier - but it doesn't exactly need to be complex as Brittany Howard explores complicated relationships and her own desire for real feeling and passion. And while a few surface readings might lead for the majority of these songs to seem simple and immediate, I'd argue it goes deeper, mostly because Howard seems to be self-aware enough to realize despite her earnest desire, things seldom work out the way she wants or in any way that's close to fair. The backing vocals often chuckle or laugh, adding fragments of commentary that she can hardly believe her statements - and yet she still does. For me the best moments of writing come in the final third of the record, most notably in the one-two punch of 'Miss You' and 'Gemini'. On the first track it's clear where she knows she shouldn't want this relationship, and yet keeps coming back to it. Combined with 'Gemini' - taking the titular twins and having them see the worst in each other and yet still cling - thematically this album seems to explore that no matter how toxic human relationships can be, they bring a passion and spark to life that's far stronger and more potent than being alone, and the arc that comes to understanding that across this album is well-established.

And probably you couldn't pick a better frontwoman to deliver that sort of message than Brittany Howard. She's already received a ton of critical acclaim for her delivery, balanced on the precarious line between poised and reckless beyond measure, and her full-throated soul howls have an organic power that's impossible to fake. I might not always love her thinner upper register, but for the most part she's a captivating presence behind the microphone - which makes the haphazard vocal production so damn frustrating. You'd think that with such a force of personality at the forefront that you'd want to give her more presence and space, but between backing vocals that feel louder than her on 'Future People' or a vocal line that just feels muffled on 'Dunes' or 'Guess Who', it feels like this record never wants to give her raw firepower the space it deserves.

And really, if we're going to highlight the element that consistently frustrates me with this record, it is the production across the board. And it's a damn shame because so much of this album absolutely kicks ass, from the wet bluesy guitar line of 'Don't Wanna Fight' to the roaring buzzy riff on 'Gimme All Your Love' to the sizzling blasts of 'Gemini'. And when this record hits a crescendo, like on 'Miss You', those buzzy guitars buoyed on crisp percussion, liquid basslines, and swells of organ are damn near excellent, especially with the fragments of strings accenting certain moments. In comparison with their debut, Alabama Shakes' compositions are less immediate and more languid and spacious, drawing on much more of that liquid soulful bass, with a burnished lo-fi sensibility that does a lot for the atmosphere. And yet this album is one of those cases where I get the feeling the atmosphere got away from the band, because the production is all over the place. In some cases it's minor, like that weedy tone on the keys on the outro of 'The Greatest', or how that cleaner handclap on 'Over My Head' doesn't really fit the song, but larger issues crop up on 'Dunes' and especially 'Guess Who', where not only do the vocals feel muffled but the mix itself feels smothered, with only the buzz-heavy guitars managing to slice through. And the spacier textures only make things more complicated - I like the idea with songs like the title track and especially the stripped back low-key funk of 'Gemini', but it can lead to some songs lacking the kick to really explode, and I'm not certain how well the jittery grooves of 'Guess Who' and 'Over My Head' really work with the more fluid textures. And none of this is helped by songs that don't really end all that well, from the collapsing atonal outro of 'Dunes' to songs that just feel too short, like the title track and 'Future Children'. Frankly, I get the feeling if the mix actually had more of a bite and didn't rely so much on muddy compression, it'd raise a lot more of an impact with me - and whenever I find live cuts, I tend to like them a lot better!

So as a whole... man, I wanted to like this more, but I still think Alabama Shakes haven't made the record that really explodes for me. It's still good and for the most part pretty enjoyable, but I'm not as grabbed as I wanted to be, especially given the critical acclaim it received. So I'm thinking a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation, but I wouldn't say it's a masterpiece. And as for the Grammys... well, here's a bit of advice: it's an insiders game, far less about critics and more about perception. But it did get me to give Alabama Shakes another chance, so there's that at least.

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