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Disc review: Alabama Shakes

Soul/Rock

Alabama Shakes

Sound & Color

[ATO]

3.5 stars

With “Boys & Girls,” its 2012 debut, Alabama Shakes showed much promise, especially in the form of singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, who arrived as a tower of soulful song, as if from nowhere. Howard was an absolute powerhouse, and she was impossible to ignore.

That said, the group seemed to fit a touch too comfortably into the pre-existing neo-garage-soul-rock genre already occupied by the likes of the Black keys, Jack White, et al. The Shakes were powerful, for certain, but original? Less so.

Album number two, “Sound & Color,” changes that, and for good, quite likely. Here, the band lets its freak flag fly high, following its muse wherever that muse might lead. Howard proves to be a bold, imaginative, soul-drenched and decidedly confident singer throughout, and the band has broadened its compositional and sonic palette considerably. It’s as if the Shakes sought to throw the windows open wide, to cast off the chains of expectation, and to embrace something altogether more free-flowing and adventurous.

There’s a psychedelic patina over most of the album’s 12 tunes, and it acts as connective tissue as the group follows an experimental bent, moving from falsetto-laden funk-soul (“Don’t Wanna Fight”) to progressive R&B (“Dunes”) and esoteric slow-burn (“Miss You”). The strangest of the lot is certainly “Gemini,” a 6-plus minute slab of space-rock that at first blush seems to meander a bit too far from home, but after repeated listenings, reveals itself as a trippy multi-part masterpiece, as gauzy Fender Rhodes drifts through the mix, and Howard brings an almost alarming sensual intimacy to the party. Hawkwind meets neo-soul and gospel? Why not?

The stylistic leap between its debut effort and “Sound & Color” is an immense one, but Howard and company manage it incredibly well. It’s if “Boys & Girls” was just a warm-up. Now, it’s game on.

- Jeff Miers