Alabama Shakes' current album, "Sound & Color," is one of the boldest second albums in recent years, taking the fairly straightforward (but stirring) blues and soul-rooted rock of the group's 2012 debut, "Boys & Girls," and turning it on its ear with a host of stylistic twists and an adventurous approach to the music.
Some hints of a more modernist and unique approach to the blues, soul and rock were present on "Boys & Girls," but "Sound & Color" makes it clear the Alabama Shakes isn't out to be a Muddy Waters revivalist band.
As inventive and daring as the second album sounds, Alabama Shakes drummer Steve Johnson said there was little that was planned or calculated about the way the music developed.
"We weren't learning our parts, getting them all dialed in and going in (to the studio) with an idea of what we were going to do," Johnson said in a recent phone interview. "It was very in the moment, you know, and improvised and just natural. However it was coming out was how we were hearing it at the time."
Alabama Shakes came into the second album being hailed as one of the most exciting new bands to have come on the scene in recent years. Formed in Athens, Alabama, in 2009 by singer/guitarist Brittany Howard, guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell and Johnson, the acclaim has only built behind "Sound & Color," which won four Grammy awards in February, including Best Alternative album, and for the song "Don't Wanna Fight," Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song.
The band was signed by ATO Records in 2011 and the buzz around the band was already building by the time "Boys & Girls" was released in spring 2012. Then the critical acclaim translated into commercial success as the single, "Hold On," topped the adult alternative singles chart and the album was certified gold with sales eventually topping 700,000 copies. This set the stage for "Sound & Color" and more great expectations. The innovative and adventurous direction of "Sound & Color," though, didn't emerge right away. In fact, the group began the path to the album with a couple of sessions that didn't bear fruit.
"First we had a couple of demos we had done in other studios," Johnson said, adding, "The songs, structurally, they weren't there yet. The sound wasn't there." The group tried some other songs at Tommy Brenneck's studio in Brooklyn. "His sound was very, very Dap-Tone and very soul, and that's cool, but that's very much their thing," he says. "It's an influence of ours, but it's not our thing."
Next, Alabama Shakes decided to head to Nashville to work with producer Blake Mills. That's when something fresh happened. It was Mills' idea to emphasize certain parts and make them feel like a statement rather than just a part in the song. "We went there and then we recorded 'Gemini' right out of the gate. That was the first song that we tracked," Johnson said, "so immediately there was a tone for the album and a mood and everything."
Johnson said the band knew "Gimme All Your Love" was a standout. "That song, it's always been pretty much a powerhouse," Johnson said. "The vocal delivery on it is just straight from the gut, in your face, howling. I mean, it's evident when we play live how powerful it is because it stops people, like boom."
Johnson saw "Sound & Color" as an album that might not connect immediately with fans of the first album as well as newcomers to the music of Alabama Shakes, but it's obvious that plenty of people heard the album's virtues. "To me, it's a very emotional, spacey ride, I guess," Johnson said. "You might have to listen to it a few times and then over that period of time, certain things kind of jump out at you that you didn't hear before. I think this is definitely one of those kinds of albums."
Johnson said it took a little time for Alabama Shakes to translate the songs from "Sound & Color" for live performance and to get dialed in on the best way to perform the material.
"I would say it's extremely fun to play," Johnson said of the new album. "It's really rewarding whenever it sounds good. Like when everybody is on point and really locked in, but it is challenging as well."
The band is also enjoying having two full albums of material to play, making it easier to fill a headlining set. "Our set lists are longer now. We were only playing like 60 minutes. Now we're playing 90 minutes and trying to put as much of the new material in as possible."
Friday, May 27, 6:30 p.m.
Les Schwab Amphitheater,
344 SW Shevlin Hixon Dr., Bend