“A new world hangs outside the window, beautiful and strange,” Brittany Howard sings, providing the perfect introduction to Alabama Shakes’ near-perfect new album, “Sound & Color.” This record, released on April 21, is beautiful and strange indeed, in a way that the ultra-talented Howard and company’s music has not been before. “Sound & Color” is a new world worth exploring, and an early candidate for 2015’s album of the year.
The Grammy-nominated Shakes’ 2012 debut, “Boys & Girls,” was a soulful but straightforward work of bluesy southern rock. This sophomore release builds on that foundation, piling on genre-defying depth and thoughtful nuance with the help of skillful co-producer Blake Mills. Lead vocalist and guitarist Howard’s stellar voice takes center stage, but this time out her bandmates — guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist and founding member Zac Cockrell, drummer Steve Johnson and touring keyboardists Ben Tanner and Paul Horton — more than hold their own.
“Sound & Color” opens with its title track, which deftly sets the tone for the album as a whole. As the song’s dreamy opening notes float through the air, it quickly becomes clear that the Shakes are out to push their musical boundaries. This is a new kind of soulful for this band, more carefully crafted and complex, yet mystical and full of feeling. “I want to touch a human being,” Howard croons while tender strings swell in the background. Emotionally, she does just that.
Next up is “Don’t Wanna Fight,” the album’s first and best single. This slick, angular, irresistible bit of funk is Alabama Shakes at their most polished. Howard’s voice is as effortlessly electric as ever and the brief breakdown sounds like the song itself is melting. The track clocks in at nearly four minutes but feels half as long — it’s hard to keep track of time when you’re dancing uncontrollably. On top of all that, the catchy melody will stick in your head like rubber cement.
Track three — my personal favorite — is “Dunes,” a big, bombastic, cymbal-crashing rock odyssey punctuated by a sunny, staccato guitar riff. Howard’s vocals make losing one’s mind sound like carefree fun: “I don’t know whose problem it is / I don’t know whose love to give / I’m losing it,” she declares, her delivery drenched in bravado. But the standout song ends on an off note, a series of low, atonal chimes that is one of the album’s only blemishes. The moment is a brief but out-of-place attempt at oddity that ends up being superfluous.
However, “Future People,” the album’s fourth track and second single, is a perfect example of why this album as a whole works so well. Howard’s ethereal falsetto colors the song but does not dominate — it’s just one ingredient mixed up in an otherworldly cocktail of creeping guitars, distorted bass buzz, eerie backing vocals that sound an awful lot like flying saucers and a raucous piano chord outro. It’s a thrill to see Alabama Shakes go so far above and beyond what they were previously thought to be capable of.
Don’t let the slow start of “Gimme All Your Love” fool you — the Shakes are still in overdrive here on track five. This song revels in contrasts: Howard’s soft vocals lull you to sleep in lilting verses before her wailing, eponymous command jolts you awake in the towering chorus. The Shakes deconstruct the track entirely in its bridge, building from lonely organ chords to call-and-response guitars and culminating in a fuzzy, organ-backed guitar solo then ignited by Howard’s howls. This song is a showstopper you have to see and hear for yourself to believe.
At the album’s halfway point, Howard and company finally offer us a chance to breathe. “This Feeling” is a delicate, heartfelt song that is no less dynamic for its acoustic quiet. “Please don’t take this feeling I have found at last,” Howard pleads, her voice dipped in reverb and layered beautifully. “Guess Who” follows with a similar feel, its breezy melody driven by Johnson’s quick-tap drumming and accented with achingly lovely orchestral flourishes.
If there’s one forgettable song on “Sound & Color,” it’s (ironically) “The Greatest.” The Shakes do their best impression of punk-rock thrash while Howard displays crazy range, her elastic voice low and sedate one second, then high and alive the next. But the raw, ragged silliness of the song mostly just distracts from this album’s larger accomplishments. With that said, the band is having contagious fun here. Howard introduces the track with a winking “check this out,” and ends it with a mad scientist’s maniacal cackle.
From there, the album’s third and final act astonishes, running the gamut from straightaway roots rock to surrealist psychedelia. The jagged guitars of “Shoegaze” sound sloppy and polished simultaneously, while the subdued, rhythm-and-blues instrumentation of “Miss You” takes a page out of the Al Green/Otis Redding playbook, its wandering verses building to joyously volcanic choruses. The gun-slinging guitar riff that introduces “Gemini” is like high noon on the moon, and Howard’s vocal floats in space, hypnotic in its rise and fall.
“Over My Head” ends the album on a thoughtful note, its spare, almost mournful tone belying the jubilation that underpins its lovesick lyrics. “Loving so deeply, I’m in over my head,” Howard sings in the refrain — submerged in “Sound & Color,” I couldn’t agree more.