Alabama Shakes Take the Blues into the Future on ‘Sound & Color’
Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color is one of the boldest sophomore albums in recent memory, taking the fairly straightforward (but stirring) blues- and soul-rooted rock of the group’s debut, Boys & Girls, and turning it on its ear with a host of adventurous stylistic twists. Some hints of this modernist approach to blues, soul and rock were present on their debut, but Sound & Color makes it clear the Alabama Shakes aren’t out to be Muddy Waters revivalists.
Yet for as inventive and daring as the album sounds, Alabama Shakes drummer Steve Johnson said there was little planned or calculated about the way the music developed.
“We weren’t learning our parts, getting them all dialed in and going in (to the studio) with an idea of what we were going to do,” Johnson said. “It was very in the moment, you know, and improvised and just natural. However it was coming out was how we were hearing it at the time.”
Alabama Shakes came into the second album being hailed as one of the most exciting new bands to have come on the scene in recent years. Formed in Athens, Ala., in 2009 by singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and Johnson, the acclaim has only built since Sound & Color, which won four Grammy awards in February, including Best Alternative album, and for the song “Don’t Wanna Fight,” Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song.
Expectations were already high for the album, following the commercial success of their debut and its hit single “Hold On.” The innovative and adventurous direction of Sound & Color, though, didn’t emerge right away. In fact, the group began the path to the album with a couple of sessions that didn’t bear fruit.
“First we had like a couple of demos we had done in other studios,” Johnson said. “Like we went back with Andrija (Tokic), who helped engineer and co-produce a couple of songs on Boys & Girls, we went back and demoed like an early version of ‘Miss You’ and ‘Gimme All Your Love’ at his place. And the songs structurally weren’t there yet. The sound wasn’t there.
“Then we tried some other songs at Tommy Brenneck’s studio in Brooklyn,” he said. “He does stuff with Budos Band and Charles Bradley. So we did an early version of ‘Joe’ and this song called ‘Heat Lightning,’ which didn’t make the record. His sound was very, very Dap-Tone and very soul. And that’s cool, but that’s very much their thing. We had bigger ambitions than that. We didn’t want to sound exactly like we’re copping their style or anything like that because it’s not our thing. It’s an influence of ours, but it’s not our thing.”
Next, Alabama Shakes went to Nashville and worked with producer Blake Mills. That’s when something fresh happened.
“We went there and then we recorded ‘Gemini’ right out of the gate,” Johnson said. “So immediately there was a tone for the album and a mood and everything.”
Several other songs then came together during that session with Mills, and work on Sound & Color stretched out for about a year as the band and its producer chased its adventurous vision.
Johnson saw Sound & Color as an album that might not connect immediately with fans of the first album as well as newcomers to the music of Alabama Shakes. “To me, it’s a very emotional, spacey ride, I guess,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of types of songs that aren’t immediate to a listener, that don’t immediately pull them in. You might have to listen to it a few times and then over that period of time, certain things kind of jump out at you that you didn’t hear before. I think this is definitely one of those kinds of albums.”
Johnson said it took a little time for Alabama Shakes to translate the songs from Sound & Color for live performance and to get dialed in on the best way to perform the material.
“I would say it’s extremely fun to play,” Johnson said of the new album. “It’s really rewarding whenever it sounds good. Like when everybody is on point and really locked in. But it is challenging as well. It’s something we kind of have to be working at constantly, even on time off of the road. We’ve got to stay brushed up.”