One of the biggest hurdles facing Alabama Shakes on ‘Sound & Color’ is that you’ll never be able to hear Brittany Howard’s voice for the first time again. The novelty of that viscous, weather-beaten drawl coming from such an unlikely source – a 22-year-old former truck driver and postal worker who’d never left her home state of Alabama – was an integral part of the band’s appeal, and the fact that Howard managed to do something with it other than becoming an X Factor sideshow-of-the-week made their success that much easier to root for. The question now is whether it will still sound as impressive the next time you hear it. Novelties eventually wear off, but true soul has no sell-by date.
As expected, there’s nothing here that impacts with quite the same force as 2012’s introductory single ‘Hold On’, whose opening line (“Bless my heart, bless my soul/Didn’t think I’d make it to 22 years old”) was as all-encapsulating a statement as “Tonight, I’m a rock’n’roll star”. Instead, what ‘Sound & Color’ does is add a little bit of both to Alabama Shakes’ palette – whereas their debut was cast in sepia hues and downhome earthiness, its follow-up is a more kaleidoscopic affair. The seven-minute ‘Gemini’ – a psychedelic slow jam on which Howard’s vocal is adorned by tolling-bell guitars and a rhythm section that sounds like it’s creeping through a swamp of molasses – is the most prominent example, but right from the opening chimes of the title track’s retro-modernist R&B, or the taut, lascivious funk of ‘Don’t Wanna Fight’, it’s obvious that ‘Sound & Color’ wasn’t made in a ‘same again’ spirit.
The cumulative effect is to make the band about more than just Howard’s (still-remarkable) set of pipes. Their musical range may not yet be as expansive as her vocal one, but any group who are able to segue from the psychotropic ’70s soul of ‘Guess Who’ to the proto-punk sturm und drang of ‘The Greatest’ are clearly no one-trick ponies. The biggest hurdle facing Alabama Shakes on album number three? Bettering this one.