Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 23: Sound & Color (Alabama Shakes, 2015)

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The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said / The recent buds relax and spread / Their greenness is a kind of grief

So begins Philip Larkin’s 1967 poem “The Trees,” which digs deep into the nature of cycles.

Following four years on the heels of their first release, entitled Boys & Girls, the four-piece outfit called Alabama Shakes, which draws up their complex and multi-hued sound from their roots, is relaxing and spreading—coming into leaf—with their 2015 album, Sound and Color.

The band’s numerous influences are at once interleaved and kneaded into each other—masked. Lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard focuses her energy on being herself, but almost out of necessity. You’ll never be your influences—don’t worry about that—so get in there and soak up their goodness. The way painters might find their way into their self by throwing themselves into copying the old masters. Howard acknowledges this conscious individuality through breaking-off from her influences while, albeit coyly, denying even a desire to copy, saying, “I don’t want to copy Aretha because I can’t sing like Aretha. I don’t want to copy James Brown because I can’t sing like James Brown.” Elsewhere she says “as much as I’m inspired by Bjork, I can’t be Bjork.” She shrugs off comparisons to Janis Joplin as too easy, saying that “people hear a powerful female singer in a rock and roll band and they say, ‘Janis Joplin.’” The old masters may not be copied outright herein, but boy are they ever allowed to bubble up to the surface. Howard sums things up nicely: “Everyone is paying homage to everybody… There’s no way to be original. All you can do is put yourself into it and do the best you can.”

Larkin’s poem continues:

Is it that they are born again / And we grow old? No, they die too, / Their yearly trick of looking new / Is written down in rings of grain.

Howard grew up listening to gritty golden oldies on the radio in her grandmother’s kitchen. That lineage is beautifully threaded through the the song “Miss You,” not missing out on the grit that she brings to the mic. Nothing dainty here.

For all of the album’s boisterous distortionary outbursts, insistent inverted-ska beats, and grungy guitars—and maybe even because of it—what strikes and pleases me most about Sound and Color is its spacious quiet corners. Breakdowns that pit single line against single line, drum grooves that draw power from their missing pieces, vocals that tug at your ears with their quietude. Howard noted a change between the first two records in the form of appreciating the space, “and the ability to let the listener have time to think about what you’re doing and not just being bombarded by all of the instruments.”

The album begins with the pair of vibes and bass, in a sonic space otherwise quiet enough that you can hear the whir of the vibraphone’s motor. The full string section that sneaks in, mid-arrangement, earns its keep by not just appearing as a token texture, polyester and pedestrian as string arrangements can so often be on pop records, but by providing a plenary range of sound and color.

There is a compositional care throughout the record, successfully resisting the urge to lean on mindless-strumming backing arrangements or overindulge in unnecessary cuts-and-pastes. The third song on the album, “Dunes,” is one of many great examples. Refreshing harmonies, detailed attention to tempo, a thoughtfully repetitive bendy-bendy guitar solo, and the slowly building, slowly receding, Beatlesesque, Ringo-ish drum-fill–filled long-fade ending.

For me, the peak of subtle brilliance on the record is the seamless shift from the duple groove set up for a whole minute on the song “Gemini” into triple, when the voice enters. D’Angelo peeks through the super-laid-back delivery and parallel vocal harmony.

Never settling too long in a particular mode, Alabama Shakes’ highly-fragmented songforms command your attention by never letting you settle in too cozily. Beats don and doff masks, instrumentation tags in and out, distortion skrims lift and fall. The shape-shifting itself is a masterclass in the thinness of the line between the grooves of rooted then and fresh now.

Larkin concludes his poem:

Yet still the unresting castles thresh / In fullgrown thickness every May. / Last year is dead, they seem to say. / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.