Muscle Shoals-inspired, Athens, Alabama-based quartet Alabama Shakes formed in 2009 around the talents of Brittany Howard, Zac Cockrell, Steve Johnson, and Heath Fogg. Originally simply called the Shakes, the band’s blend of fiery blues-rock and hard-hitting Southern soul drew comparisons to the Black Keys, Drive-By Truckers, the Detroit Cobras, and even Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. The band released an eponymous debut EP in September 2011, with plans to record a full-length album later in the year. Released on ATO in 2012, Boys & Girls was produced and mixed by the band at the Bomb Shelter in Nashville. The album peaked at number six in the U.S., and earned three Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist and Best Rock Performance (for “Hold On”) on its way to gold certification. The group took its time to record its second album, Sound & Color. Weirder and wilder than the debut, the sophomore set appeared to strong reviews — and debuted at number one — in April 2015.[i]
“I wanted to explore songwriting and what you can do when you don’t pay attention to genre boundaries or anything like that,” Howard says. “I just wanted to be free to do what I want to do as a musician.”
Alabama Shakes’s rapid ascent has been largely fueled by Howard’s singular stage presence. When she first steps in front of a crowd, there are moments when she seems like the awkward adolescent she used to be, all too aware of her size, her looks and her lumbering gait. But when she hits that first big unrestrained note — her face contorted as if possessed — or a thundering chord on her Gibson, stomping and quaking, preaching and confessing, her jaw jutting out like an angry, pouting child’s, everything changes. It becomes impossible to look anywhere else. She can sound by turns ferocious or angelic, sometimes in the same song. When she sings about heartbreak, it feels as if, right there at that moment, she is consumed by it.[ii]
As a lyricist, Howard excels at spinning down-home profundity that make her sound her age, 26, and years beyond. Along with her tales of haunted love, cautious optimism, and impassioned pacifism come more impressionistic songs that mean to find connections between epochs and space. She and her band travel through the blues back to a bad sign—or is it a good one?—on “Gemini”, a six-and-a-half-minute excursion into zero-gravity funk. Whereas Alabama Shakes once seemed destined to relive the history of others, they invent their own genesis here, as weeds grow near the Tennessee River and eyes reveal dreams that eventually must wake up. And just as the song comes to a close, it keeps going for a little while longer.[iii]
“We lived down a long gravel driveway, and you’re driving through these woods and then you cross a bridge over a creek. And then you keep going up this hill, and on either side of you it just starts filling in with junk cars, newer cars, boats, motorcycles, a shop. It’s all around you. And then you get to the top of the hill and that’s where, um… we grew up in a little trailer, but it was really nice.”
The album’s twelve songs reveal a band honed by years on the road, and drawing from a wide range of influences. The bluesy groove of “Shoegaze” or the garage-rock freak-out on “The Greatest” give way to the psychedelic space jam “Gemini.” The gently swaying, chiming title song opens the album with what Howard calls “more of a visual thing, I think of this whole scene going on,” then explodes into the urgent, tightly-coiled funk of “Don’t Wanna Fight.” Long instrumental intros and passages create hazy atmosphere, and then the intensity of Howard’s vocals snaps everything back into riveting focus.
She explains that there were a few specific recordings that were touchstones for Sound & Color. “The Superfly soundtrack, Gil Scott-Heron’s music and how minimal it could be, David Axelrod—not so much wanting to sound like them, but all of their attention to small details. With ‘Gemini,’ I thought about how the Temptations used to write pop songs, but then got really far out on ‘Cloud Nine’ or ‘Psychedelic Shack.’ I imagined myself in the situation of the African-American groups in the ‘70s, when synthesizers had just come out and they were making all of this moody stuff.”
“Ever since Boys & Girls came out, we’ve tried really hard to not give in to media or public definition of what we should be,” adds Fogg. “So those kinds of influences have been there all the time, but this record pushes them to different extremes—before, if we had a more contemporary R&B feel, it was more hidden under a classic vibe, but it’s separated a little more drastically on this one.”
The songs were written during breaks in the grueling touring schedule of a young band, sometimes by the members together and sometimes by Howard working alone at her home studio. She notes that there were several dedicated writing periods during the past year, but that “sometimes I wasn’t dedicating enough time, so I’d binge-write, sit in the basement and work for 18 hours for five days straight.”[iv]
[i] James Christopher Monger, “Alabama Shakes Biography”, Allmusic Guide. Accessed on 2/10/2016.
[ii] Joe Rhodes, “Alabama Shakes’s Soul-Stirring, Shape-Shifting New Sound”, The New York Times, 3/18/2015. Accessed on 2/10/2016.
[iii] Ryan Dombat, “Alabama Shakes: Sound & Color”, Pitchfork, 4/23/2015. Accessed on 2/10/2016.
[iv] Alabama Shakes, About Sound & Color, Official Website. Accessed on 2/10/2016.