Liner Notes: On Sound & Color by Alabama Shakes -The Toast

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mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.


It’s rare, but it happens…you find yourself in need of music, a specific kind of music, to match your mood or temperament, but nothing in your personal collection will suffice. For me, the stranger phenomenon is knowing when I need to hear something new, to soothe something deep and personal and nameless within me. A kind of melancholia that has a hint of fatigue to it. Imagine the marathon runner at the end of a race, completely drained. Shoulders slumped, head low, breath shallow and rapid, so rapid, you can see the runner’s back jerk. It feels like this, sometimes—when you’re tired, and you want to stop. It feels like this to me, sometimes. Maybe it’s endemic of adulthood, but—lately, I’ve been unable to find the right music to meet this exhaustion head on.

Twitter is, if nothing else, an excellent music discovery tool — in part because of its ability to foster brief conversations, and in part because it is the perfect place to champion or dismiss an album as you’re listening. Lately, the phrase “Alabama Shakes” has crossed my timeline more than once, from more than one person. It didn’t take long to realize people were tweeting about a musical act, a group.

Soon, right on time, a link to an NPR feature appeared on the timeline. It was only a week ago—literally—that I found Alabama Shakes on Spotify, and added their latest album, Sound & Color, to my growing number of albums saved in the app. With no idea of their sound, since I hadn’t listened to a single track or watched a video of any of their performances. I entered Sound & Color cold.

The vibraphone which opens the album—the actual first sound—immediately harkened back to Otis Redding or Curtis Mayfield. I have no idea why I made those associations, and I’m not entirely sure they’re accurate factually. What matters most, to me, is the warmth, the feeling of home, I feel whenever I think of those two men and their music, indeed the overall oeuvre of Soul music.

As the mallets struck the vibraphone, I felt at home. Fitting, then, that the vibraphone opens the album as part of the titular track. The song “Sound & Color” has so much occurring within it, despite being a mere three minutes long. It feels twice as long, which is an actual compliment in this case. “A new world hangs, outside the window, beautiful and strange,” opens lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard. “It must be falling away.”

Photo via Wikimedia Photo via Wikimedia

For the past week, I’ve been trying to describe Brittany Howard’s voice without making comparisons to other singers. Not that Howard is beyond compare, but what does it mean to you if I were to say, “Her voice reminds me of Nina Simone”? It does, as a matter of fact. But it also sounds like that exhaustion I mentioned earlier. Not sleepy and lethargic. Her voice sounds the way I feel inside lately: exhausted, yes, but also raging, and hopeful—of what, who can say; perhaps something better than the world in which we find ourselves—as if she’s singing for so many people, and carrying so many of their burdens, all the while wanting to sing for herself, for her own catharsis. It is difficult to describe nameless feelings, so I suppose if someone were ask me “How are you feeling?” I’d simply recommend that they listen to Sound & Color for the answer.

“Oh, I think I’m losing it,” wails Howard on “Dunes,” a song which deceptively begins with a weariness akin to Blues. “Dunes” increases in power and volume, with occasional breaks toward the Blues again, before exploding into full Rock. “Future People” finds Howard and her malleable voice crooning in a high-pitched tone, rendering the lyrics almost incomprehensible. Still, the bizarre blend of southern and garage rock works, with Howard’s voice at the center.

“Gimme All Your Love” once again is deceptive, as Howard sings it “straight” with a hint of Al Green in her voice, southern and vibrating and a bit unpredictable. “So much is going on,” Howard sings relatively softly, “but you can always come around.” She beckons: “Why don’t you sit with me for just a little while? Tell me, what’s wrong?”

The tenderness shifts when Howard turns herself loose, the rest of the band keeping up, as she screams “IF YOU JUST GIVE ME ALL YOUR LOVE” with a monstrous hunger we all know, the belly-deep desire for another human being: their body, their touch, their time, everything they are willing to give. As I listen to this song on repeat, I wonder how someone I’ve never met, someone I never heard of before last week, can sing with such a depth, and with such precision, matching everything I feel these days about desire, about vulnerability.

Every song on Sound & Color is more genre-bending as the album moves forward. “Guess Who” starts with a guitar riff from 60s Soul, then the bands moves to 60s Rock before seamlessly transitioning to ’70s Soul by the time Howard sings the hook, “All I really want is peace of mind,” with a brief violin arrangement that could’ve been lifted straight from Philadelphia soul. “The Greatest” is southern rock and punk with doo-wop flourishes, before descending completely into a rockout that feels like home if you’ve ever attending Sunday service at a Southern Baptist church. In “Gemini,” Howard shows off her songwriting and her imagination as she warbles, “On a planet not so far away, we were born together, in the beginning there was just you and me, and where we washed up upon this river, suckled on the honey of the Tennessee.”

Howard brings us back to desire, to the way love, if we allow it, can drill itself into our bones, with the final track “Over My Head”:

I don’t think of you in bits and pieces
I think of you only like a miracle
Loving so deeply
I feel it through all my past lives
It feels good, I’m never saying goodbye
It feels good, I’m never saying goodbye
I’m in over my head…

It is lovely to find new music that perfectly captures a mood, state of mind, that would otherwise elude definition and perhaps understanding. I’m filled with my past, if that makes sense. My birthday is only a few months away, its approach always triggering a quasi-Mercury-Retrograde feeling of listlessness and nostalgia inside of me. I’ve never visited Athens, Alabama—where Alabama Shakes originally formed—but the South, for all of my love for Brooklyn, calls from my past. Vague memories of my maternal grandparents and the voices of aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and siblings and parents I haven’t seen in years. I’m not from the South, but my blood is, and I’ve been longing for home, but not New Jersey, where I was born and raised. When you’re tired and sick of the drama and agendas of other people, you think of home, even if it is the home that’s a little foreign to you, still reflected within your genes.

mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.

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