TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The band Alabama Shakes has a new album - their second - called "Sound & Color." The quartet, led by singer-guitarist Brittany Howard, made a splash with its 2012 debut "Boys & Girls," which was hailed for its mix of contemporary rock with older-blues and R&B stylings. Rock critic Ken Tucker says "Sound & Color" finds Alabama Shakes experimenting with an even wider range of pop music genres.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T WANNA FIGHT")
BRITTANY HOWARD: (Singing) My life, your life - don't cross them lines. What you like, what I like - why can't we both be right? Attacking, defending until there's nothing left worth winning. Your pride and my pride - don't waste my time. I don't wanna fight no more.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The funky guitar riff followed by the combination of yelling, moaning, wheezing, squeal that emanates from Brittany Howard to kick off the song "Don't Wanna Fight" - that's the essence of Alabama Shakes' sound. It's a sound that reaches back to the blues and '60s Southern soul, as well as a sound that plunges forward into the spoken-word vocals of hip-hop. Alabama Shakes is a quartet set up like a rock band - guitar, bass, drums - but which claims any kind, or era, of music as its own.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUNES")
HOWARD: (Singing) Somewhere over the dunes, love, I walk, I wept - enough. I turn the desert into sea, babe. I swam from the terrible dust. I don't know whose problem it is. I don't know whose love to give. I'm losing it.
TUCKER: That's "Dunes," a song that multitracks Brittany Howard's voice, as if she wanted company in her romantic misery. Some of the best music on "Sound & Color" is the most quiet music -the moments when Brittany Howard seems to have transcribed conversations she's had with herself about her state of mind, her moods and fleeting feelings. You can hear this in a vocal that confides in you on the song "This Feeling."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THIS FEELING")
HOWARD: (Singing) See, I've been having me a real good time. And it feels so nice to know I'm gonna be all right. So please don't take my feelings I have found at last. So please don't take my feelings I have found at last. Yeah, if I wanted to, I'd be all right.
TUCKER: Which is not to say that Alabama Shakes doesn't rock out. Having made so much about how much the band prizes intimate sharing, I feel happily obliged to play some of "The Greatest," a kind of new punk rock song about wanting a particular person to love you and just not getting that feeling back in return.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GREATEST")
HOWARD: (Singing) Well, I never meant to be the greatest. I only ever want to be your baby. Now you got me in your arms. Don't ever let me go, go anywhere. Should I say stay, stay away? I know you ain't out there tryin' to be my baby. God help us, help us all. Don't ever let me down. You're always doin' that.
TUCKER: For most of its length, "Sound & Color" is a collection of really interesting vocals surrounded by guitar chords and drumbeats that carry you along. Then there are a few very special songs, such as this one called "Shoegaze," in which Howard's vocal and the guitars by Howard and Heath Fogg rise up to create a perfectly crafted piece of music that sounds familiar and exhilarating the first time you hear it or the hundredth time you play it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOEGAZE")
HOWARD: (Singing) Can't wait for night to come. That's when the fun really begins. My band cools off when that day is done. And then I tuck myself in. It ain't no fun to be lonely. But I was not truly lonely. And I'm beginning to realize it. I can't have everything, everything.
TUCKER: Over the course of "Sound & Color," Alabama Shakes messes with what had already - after its first album - become its signature sound. There are songs here that distort or muffle the vocals, that fracture tempo and wander around the back alleys of improvisation. Because of this, "Sound & Color" isn't a consistent album. But Alabama Shakes does what it needed to do. It's made a second album that opens up new territory and leaves you curious about where the band will go next.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed "Sound & Color," the new album from the band Alabama Shakes. Coming up, linguistic Geoff Nunberg considers how the word disrupt became part of tech and corporate jargon. This is FRESH AIR.
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