Separated by two generations, Alabama Shakes vocalist/guitarist Brittany Howard and gospel empress Mavis Staples today work as two stylistically different soul music ambassadors united in their goal of a greater artistic good. What makes their two newest recordings so fascinating is how respectfully they wander into each other’s camps.
The Shakes’ Sound & Color, one of the more eagerly awaited sophomore efforts of recent times, is a complete inferno of a record. Expanding upon the retro reputation of its outstanding 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, Howard and company tantalize with a collar-grabbing mesh of torrential funk, deep pocket grooves and, often, orchestral psychedelia without shedding the music’s roots rock foundation.
Howard again serves as the Shakes’ earthshaker with a vocal fervency that is consistently arresting. Hearing her gather vocal ammo over a chattering guitar intro and a resulting groove of molten funk on Don’t Wanna Fight is like hearing James Brown wind up. The singing slides into action with an exhilarating squeal and then explodes.
Gimme All Your Love, on the other hand, balances suave soul cool with monstrous power chords. Howard’s vocal lead opens with Billie Holiday-like vulnerability before detonating into take-no-prisoners gusto bolstered by a blast of gloriously fuzzed out guitar mayhem.
But there are wonderful dynamics at work here, too, like the finger-popping falsetto Howard employs on This Feeling, the moody soul-blues feel the full Shakes crew creates to orchestrate Gemini (which wouldn’t sound out of place on a ‘90s Prince album) and the whispery confessional Over My Head that eases Sound & Color out with choral like overdubs and the same jazzy reserve that began this extraordinary album 12 songs earlier.
With vocals that roll in like waves during the title tune and production that blurs traditional and modern soul accents together, the resulting music defies time zones. Of course, once that deep and sagely voice enters, which has lost none of it emotive impact at age 75, you remember exactly who you are dealing with.
Staples sounds like a million dollars as she powers her way through a solemn reading of the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues staple See That My Grave is Kept Clean, a modernized reading of father Pops Staples’ 1963 gospel confession Wish I Had Answered and two new tunes by Roots/RJD2 collaborator Son Little, who produced the recording.
Little essentially provides Your Good Fortune the sound of a remix album, but his groove-centric approach is very complimentary to Staples’ earthy vocal command – a sound that still offers a few rootsy shakes of its own.