Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sound & Color

Alabama Shakes' Sound & Color might be my favorite album on the list, but even I have to reluctantly admit it's not the best. It's probably not even in consideration for the win. This is truly an "honor to be nominated" album, one rewarded for showing real growth and future promise.

It is a clear step up in production values from the band's debut. It's sort of expected since they did their entire first album on their own. Sound & Color has a richer, fuller sound whereby their able to explore a lot of different directions and interests without losing their signature sound. Being fronted by Brittany Howard, who also writes all the songs, helps in that way. It's impossible for her to be anything but her.

Still, the band provides, as she's often said, a real diversity of style that makes Alabama Shakes unique. It's Alabama-inspired Southern Rock, but there's plenty of blues and more alternative elements present. Howard, on this album, explores her voice as an instrument, experimenting with falsetto and various rhythms to provide a broader canvas for the art.

"Don't Wanna Fight No More," their most popular single to-date, it likely the best track on the album. It's got a rousing beat and indomitable lyrics that show off the kind of country folk wisdom that seems to exude from Howard. This from someone who, admittedly, was relatively isolated prior to gaining sweeping fame. It evokes even more respect for the introspection and depth present, even on songs with such simple lyrics. This song deserves to be recognized on its own.

Overall, many of the middle tracks on Sound & Color do possess a stark similarity to one another, perhaps more reminiscent of a jam band (something Alabama Shakes certainly has in their DNA). This is really helpful in a young band finding its unique (and awesome) place in the world of music, but it's not likely to garner a lot of Grammy votes. Still, the range, emotion, and sheer power of Howard's vocals propel this to something more than a good follow-up (which is a difficult feat in its own right).

The album finishes with "Over My Head," which does capture the promise, imagination, emotion, simplicity, and complexity that it the best of what Alabama Shakes can do (check out this NPR interview with Howard), but one or two or five tracks does not a "Best Album" make.

In the end, a track like "The Greatest," an adorable, but failed attempt at punk? pop? 50's do-wop?, perhaps an attempt to show a young woman's desire to change herself into anything for a man (which sort of tracks with the lyrics) just isn't something you necessarily put on an album. It almost betrays the rush by which their new label wanted to capitalize on early success - this is perhaps a terrific EP, four songs short of a truly classic album.

This is truly a band, though. Howard's solo project, Thunderbitch, proved she's at her best collaborating with a band and Alabama Shakes is better because of the diversity of input and experience one would only find in small-town Alabama where the only musicians available just have to play together. A track like "Gemini" makes me look forward to what this band can continue to produce, but it's not fully there yet and Sound & Color is not likely to be the album that puts them on the map.

Verdict: Kendrick Lamar's accomplishment is undeniable, simply one of the best rap albums of the last 25 years, certainly the best, by far, of this generation. I'm not sure he's gonna win, because Taylor Swift put together perhaps the most perfectly constructed pop album since the Beach Boys and she's really, really popular, but I vote Kendrick #1. I think I have to put Swift #2, even though Chris Stapleton did do more of his own writing and he certainly transcends his genre by a much higher degree; I might have them 2a and 2b. I (and the voters) don't always like to reward a group effort on par with Swift's soundmachine-ing on 1989, but you sort of have to respect the result. Alabama Shakes is an easy fourth and The Weeknd is last.

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