The best part of the Grammy awards has always been the live performances. Unfortunately for rock fans, there is little in way of rock performances these days. Every once in awhile though an alt rock act will break through and give their fans what they want to see. Arcade Fire lit up the stage and actually won the big prize back in 2011 to the surprise (and chagrin) of many. It was a well deserved win and The Suburbs (2010) still ranks as Arcade Fire’s best album to date. This year, Alabama Shakes had the opportunity to shake up the Grammys with their nomination in the Album of the Year category for Sound and Color (2015). Alas, the grand prize would not go to them as Taylor Swift won out, but the group did take home the Best Alternative Album, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Performance awards. Sound and Color was a much more artistically solid album than Swift’s though, and it’s mind boggling how Arcade Fire’s artistic merit was rewarded but Alabama Shakes wasn’t. Sound and Color was just as profound, and profoundly moving, as The Suburbs was (and still is, if you can still stomach Arcade Fire after the disaster that was Reflektor).
Sound and Color was bound to be a big record for Alabama Shakes, and recording big records can often cause tension within a group. I don’t know of any particular tensions that the members of Alabama Shakes struggled with during the recording of this album, but the music definitely portrays a tension that really wasn’t present on Boys & Girls (2012). The album’s opening track, the aptly titled “Sound and Color,” let Alabama Shakes fans know right off the bat that they were in new sonic territory. Brittany and company skipped the whole transition period that former alternative music darlings R.E.M. and U2 went through. Instead they dove straight into their experimental phase on their second record. Or did they? “Don’t Wanna Fight” quickly resurrected the minimalist soul/blues guitar lines and beats, but there was an angst simmering just under the surface that was shocking in its latent violence of emotion. This was evident in Howard’s vocal delivery as well as subject matter. Alabama Shakes weren’t “Goin’ to the Party” anymore. Howard was now bewailing the struggle to keep the power on while “working myself to death.” The struggle here was real. Way more real than it was on their first album. Howard was also striking a balance in her voice and lyrics between uninhibited fire and desperate resignation, often both at once. It is a rare feat that few artists succeed at. The tension on Sound and Color didn’t exist solely within Howard’s vocals though. The album runs a gamut of genres, all marked by the band’s unmistakable signature. Straight up retro-punk rears its head on “The Greatest.” ‘60s r&b shows up in “MIss You.” Sludgy funk slogs its way through “Gemini.” The type of sexual tension, and healing, on the scale of Marvin Gaye mixed with some loud/quiet bursts of guitar slayed by some fantastic southern soul and blues makes “Gimme All Your Love” the album’s standout track. When listened to all together, the album is simply an exhausting experience. It’s the good kind of exhaustion though, you know?
Sound and Color was definitely the best alternative music album of the year. Its retro-nuevo sound is the very definition of what alternative music is. In the ‘90s, alternative music was ‘70s guitar rock turned up to 11 and mixed with a little social conscious. In the ‘00s, the new alternative artist looked even further back, with some obviously mixed success. 19th Century music might be great, but it really doesn’t rock now does it? Alabama Shakes is the alternative music stalwarts of the 10’s, and just as Cobain defined ‘90s alt and Jack White defined ‘00s alt, Brittany Howard looks like she is going to define alt rock in the twenty teens. Putting all that aside though, Sound and Color should have been Album of the Year. It was definitely the year’s best, creatively, sonically and critically.
03-11 Bogota, Colombia – Festival Estereo Picnic
03-13 São Paulo, Brazil – Lollapalooza Brazil
03-14 São Paulo, Brazil – Lollapalooza Brazil Sideshow at Club Audio
03-15 São Paulo, Brazil – Lollapalooza Brazil Sideshow at Circo Voador
03-17 Buenos Aires, Argentina – Lollapalooza Argentina Sideshow at Niceto Club
03-19 Buenos Aires, Argentina – Lollapalooza Argentina
03-20 Santiago, Chile – Lollapalooza Chile
04-21 Nashville, TN – Ascend Amphitheater *
04-22 Charlotte, NC – Uptown Amphitheater *
04-23 Charleston, SC – Volvo Cars Stadium *
04-25 Chattanooga, TN – Track 29 *
04-26 Asheville, NC – ExploreAsheville.com Arena *
04-27 Athens, GA – The Classic Center *
04-29 Ybor City, FL – Cuban Club *
04-30 St. Augustine, FL – St. Augustine Amphitheater *
05-21 Gulf Shores, AL – Hangout Festival
05-27 Bend, OR – Les Schwab Amphitheater ^
05-28 Burnaby, British Columbia – Festival Lawn at Deer Lake Park !
05-29 George, WA – Sasquatch! Music Festival
07-08 London, England – Hyde Park ‒ British Summer Time
07-09 Barcelona, Spain – Cruilla Barcelona Summer Festival
07-15 Memphis, TN – Mud Island Amphitheater
07-16 Louisville, KY – Forecastle
07-19 Chicago, IL – Civic Opera House
07-20 Chicago, IL – Aragon Ballroom
08-06 Taos, NM – Kit Carson Park #
08-07 Phoenix, AZ – Comerica Theatre #
08-09-10 Los Angeles, CA – Greek Theater #
08-12 Berkeley, CA – Greek Theatre !
* with Dylan LeBlanc
^ with Hop Along
! with Kurt Vile and the Violators
# with Dawes