You’d be hard-pressed to read an article about the Alabama Shakes that doesn’t suggest they’re torchbearers of the Southern sound. But the Alabama Shakes don’t want the stinking torch. Their sophomore record, Sound & Color, sees them try to, well, shake the Southern revivalist tag.
“We try not to think of what we’re doing in such large terms,” says frontwoman Brittany Howard. “Honestly, I would much prefer that people say we were doing what the Alabama Shakes are doing, not trying to recreate something that came before us.”
Whatever they’re doing, it’s sure as hell been working. Since releasing their debut, Boys & Girls, in 2012, the Shakes have gone Gold, received near-universal critical adulation, played Saturday Night Live and earned two Grammy nominations. Whether they like it or not, the four-piece are a dad-rocking Boomer’s dream: they’ve got humble Cotton State origins, vintage R&B reference points and a powerful black female singer who sounds like the sweaty, done-wrong lovechild of Otis and Aretha.
“We have to stay true to ourselves and where we want to go.”
So it seems counter-intuitive for the Shakes to divert from the bluesy, foot-stomping sound that’s been their calling card. Sound & Color is a decidedly trippier, more meandering affair; there are psychedelic slow jams (“Gemini”), fuzzed-out funk jaunts (“Future People”), nu-soul meditations (“Over My Head”) and garage-rock bangers (“The Greatest”). It’s a sonic detour that might cost the Shakes some fans. But they’re okay with that.
“It would be dishonest not to say that you think about [alienating fans] occasionally, but we’re really proud of the direction we’re heading,” says Howard. “We have to stay true to ourselves and where we want to go, or else what is the point of doing this? Also, I’m not really sure what the Southern sound is anymore.”
Southern or not, the Shakes get attention because Howard reminds people of something—not necessarily someone. It’s an ethos of a bygone era. A time when vocalists conjured raw, agonizing pain at will, crowing and screaming, preaching and confessing, like the wounds are fresh and sting like hell. Even with its genre-bending avant-gardism, Sound & Color still sounds like rock n’ roll’s pure, openhearted early days, thanks to her agonized delivery.
Which, of course, makes journalists yearn for even more contextualization: is Howard the torchbearer for true, transcendent rock singers?
“I’ll let the critics figure this out,” she says. “It’s something that should be looked at in 10 or 20 years. This is our second record. We have such a long way to go.”