When they exploded on the scene in 2012, Alabama Shakes’ mix of bluesy garage rock, Southern rock and soul (channeled via vocalist Brittany Howard) led most critics to brand them a roots rock group. It was, for the most part, a fitting umbrella genre to peg the eclectic, idiosyncratic quartet under.
But with the release of their sophomore record, Sound & Color, forget any notion you might have had about the Shakes playing so-called roots rock. In fact, forget any notion that these Heart of Dixie oddballs could be branded under any singular genre or style.
A breathtakingly weird and diverse record, Sound & Color adds R&B, disco, funk, classic rock and even dashes of punk to its established soul and blues rock amalgam. And while genre-blending may be more or less ubiquitous in popular music in our post-millennium world, most acts are far more subtle, seamless and safe in their meshing of music styles.
Alabama Shakes sound like they could not care less what anyone wants or expects from them – and they shift styles between songs with truly ballsy abandon. The band touches on smooth neo-soul (“Sound & Color”), disco-informed garage rock (“Don’t Wanna Fight”), blistering mid-tempo blues-rock (“Dunes,” “Future People”), gentle folk balladry (“This Feeling”), upbeat, Strokes-like post-punk (“The Greatest”) and dense, druggy funk (“Gemini”). Sometimes their diverse influences mesh in a single track – “Gimme All Your Love” seems to owe equal debts to Zeppelin and the Pixies, with its start-stop dynamics, explosive bluesy guitar and Howard’s Robert Plantesque vocals in the chorus. But what’s most startling is their willingness to shift styles between songs, rather than during.
Of course, a record as diverse as Sound & Color opens itself to criticism that it’s too inconsistent, and those points would be valid. But when the all-over-the-place songs work, as is the case for most of Sound & Color, that point becomes pretty inconsequential. In fact, versatility and willingness to explore are the band’s key strengths on Sound & Color. After the relatively straightforward, under-developed Boys & Girls, who would have thought it?