Lyrics Born Talks Alabama Shakes’ Sound & Color

No second-album slickness here; instead, Alabama Shakes are taking us on an emotional journey.

I think the first time I heard Alabama Shakes, I said, “Who the f*ck is that?”

Every time after that I was like, “There they go again. Damn, they bad.” That was my reflexive go-to pretty much all throughout 2012 whenever I would hear “Hold On” firing like a blowtorch through whatever sound system was lucky enough to get singed. All I know is that girl could sang, and that band was funky. Finally, three years later, Alabama Shakes bring us their new album Sound & Color. Aptly titled, the Athens, Alabama band’s newest is as sweet as it is brutal, and as experimental as it is thoughtful.

Beautiful and abstract, the title track is a stream-of-consciousness, Shuggie Otistic intro to what is to follow. “Don’t Wanna Fight” and “Dunes” have that funky, blues-stoner-rock feel the Alabama Shakes do so well, the former complete with a James Brown-esque “Give It Up or Turnit a Loose” bass riff break-down. “Future People” is equally ballsy, with Brittany Howard’s coarse falsetto whipping it, the whole band’s rhythm section and background vocals banging hard, and Moog keyboards and distorted buzz-saw guitars popping like crazy.

That said, what makes this album so special to me is the ballads, and the way they are creatively delivered in abundant variety. Howard has an impressive arsenal in her utility belt, leading the charge vocally in so many unique and nuanced ways. Sometimes wielding the long sword, other times the short, depending on the task at hand. She is an absolute monster on the mic. Her falsetto can be sugary sweet (but with teeth) as on “Guess Who,” or stacked and sexy if you deserve it, as on “Over My Head.” If asking nicely doesn’t work, we also know from “Gimme All Your Love” that she can scream on a MF, like Robert Plant in traffic if you ain’t moving fast enough.

Speaking of which, “Gimme All Your Love” and the personal, “Miss You” (“and your Mickey Mouse tattoo…”) are particularly interesting because the music and vocals go through many unexpected changes and venture into places modern compositions rarely go. Camouflaged as ballads, these two tunes explode unannounced at calculated intervals like land mines, and then come gently back down like a butterfly landing. Jarring, arresting and beautiful, by the time they’re all over, you feel like you’ve spent a (very eventful) whole day with someone, even though each song is only four minutes long.

My favorite song on the album is the six-and-a-half-minute cosmic walkabout, “Gemini.” With its psych-funk, Isaac Hayes, “Walk on By”-era guitar riffs and keys, Wu-Tang “Can It All Be So Simple”-styled bassline and Funkadelic-D’Angeloan vocal brushstrokes, this dusted tale of found love had me levitating. This one is baaaaaaad, boy.

Thankfully, there’s nothing “second-album slick” about Sound & Color, as artists often find themselves with bigger budgets and bigger expectations in the wake of big hits. Nah, not here, tho. The Shakes maintain their precocious patina (and perhaps even further muddy up) their signature “plug-and-play” feel, making a conscious effort not to cut the grass growing up between the floorboards. While some of us fans may long for a super-anthemic “Hold On” we can all rally around, that’s not what this album is about. This album is about emotive travel, and the beautiful act of painting from an expanded palate. The best way I can describe this album, is “scenic” (did I say aptly titled?). It’s like a cross-country drive with your old lady or main dude, while the surroundings, time of day and landscape do the work for you, seamlessly changing tone and mood as the album plays through. See about it.

Boasting a successful, 20-year career, Japanese-American rapper Lyrics Born has one foot planted firmly in the independent world as the co-founder of the rap labels Soulsides Records and Quannum Projects, and the other foot in the mainstream, where his music can be heard in commercials for EA Sports and Diet Coke. He is also a member of the duo Latryx with his partner in rhyme, Lateef the Truthspeaker. The group recently released The Second Album, which was heralded as “gorgeous and contemplative” by famed music critic Robert Christgau, who also deemed it “hands-down, the alt-rap album of the year.” LB will release his fourth solo album Real People, recorded entirely in New Orleans, on April 7, 2015, via his Mobile HomeRecordings. You can follow him on Twitter here.