Alabama Shakes – “Sound and Color”

Grade: A-

Key Tracks: “Don’t Wanna Fight” “Gimme All Your Love” “The Greatest”

Alabama Shakes’ “Sound and Color” is their sophomore album, but you wouldn’t know it. They sound like veterans, who have earned the right to indulge themselves in whatever they want. They spend most of the album resembling bands that have come before them – anywhere from TV on the Radio, to Citizen Cope, to the MC5. But all the while, aside from a few digressions, they’re a Southern blues-rock band, in total control of their sound. If they want to have fun, they’re damn well going to have some.

The opening song is the title track, a minimalist song based around layered vocals and beats. Intentional or not, it harkens strongly back to TV on the Radio’s opener “I Was a Lover” (from “Return to Cookie Mountain”), as a hushed song that gives the impression that the band could, but isn’t necessarily going to, erupt. The album follows exactly as it’s presented – usually calm and ethereal, but with occasional, noisy flourishes. The second track, “Don’t Wanna Fight,” establishes a smooth guitar line that’s instantly more melodic than the whole previous song. Brittany Howard’s vocals come in as a prolonged squeak, because, why not? Smooth blues vocals are expected to complement the music, and she gets to that point. But fighting the grain is the album’s mission statement.

“Sound and Color” is an album that sounds like it was designed around individual songs, not around an album format. What I mean – take a classic like “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Abbey Road.” Excellent albums, but not every song sounds great when it comes up on shuffle. They’re centered around an album format. Blues (and blues rock) is usually centered around songs, and nearly every track sounds like the band worked out the components that would make it unique. “Dunes” has a quick section where the band gives way to a dissonant pair of acoustic guitars. “Future People” has a synth-y drone in the background that would’ve sent John Lee Hooker to the hospital. Best track “Gimme All Your Love” sounds like an improved version of any song by any boring alt-jam band, occasionally bordering on near-silence. And then it picks up, suddenly, and unexpectedly. And “The Greatest” is a straight, worn punk track, one that sounds like it’s going to have a deceiving, disappointing red herring intro but doesn’t, keeping the energy up for nearly four minutes.

Every member of Alabama Shakes is clearly exceptional. Howard’s voice goes from low and subdued to high and shrieking at any turn. Zac Cockrell’s bass bumps the band through the whole album, more audible than on most rock releases. Heath Fogg’s and Howard’s guitars drive funky, usually melodic but occasionally dissonant rhythms. And Steve Johnson’s drums keep the rhythms afloat, expanding the band’s whole sound. The band occasionally works in group vocals, and sometimes not. Sometimes, they sound like a collective, sometimes they’re supporting one member. But always, they’re laid back and just enjoying what they’re doing. Without the band’s pure enjoyment of the music they’re making, half of the songs on “Sound and Color” would sound unoriginal, played out. But the band seems to understand that they’re playing some pretty hybrid genres, and they roll with it. “Sound and Color” probably isn’t going to be an album we’re looking back on in twenty years, but for an immediate time, it’s a hell of a ride.

If you like this, try: TV on the Radio, but as great as “Cookie Mountain” is, their follow-up “Dear Science” was even better.

-By Andrew McNally

The Creeping Ivies – “Ghost World”

(Photo Credit: bandcamp)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Ghost World” “The Creeps”

An immediate comparison between the Creeping Ivies and the Black Keys or the White Stripes might be unwarranted, but tough to ignore – the Creeping Ivies are a guitar and drums duo, making loud and fuzzy garage-blues-punk that calls back to their idols. But that’s only a jumping-off point, because the Creeping Ivies harken back to an entirely different era of music. “Ghost World,” their second full-length, sounds more like an album that would fit right in at a dark NY punk club in 1979.

The Scottish band – consisting of Becca Bomb and Duncan Destruction (real names, I’ll continue to pretend) – use bluesy-garage rock to channel some of the more inventive 80’s punk. Becca’s wide vocals dominate the album, often booming over the guitar and drums. It’s almost impossible not to be reminded of Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex and Exene Cervenka of X, two 80’s punk bands that often incorporated blues and jazz into their music. And like Styrene and Cervenka, Becca’s vocals determine the song, especially on trippier songs like the excellent “Ramona Wolf.” Alternately cool, standard and hollering, Becca’s vocals are disarmingly decisive, and go against the rather lackluster vocals of most other garage bands today.

While other blues-punk bands often use blues as the center of their music, the Creeping Ivies tend to gravitate more towards punk and, in the aftermath, volume. The garage and blues elements help to pump the songs up and differentiate them, but are background parts. Songs like “The Creeps” sound ripped out of a Cramps album, not from a garage somewhere in Tennessee. And it helps give the songs energy. Even if the album is bluesy, it isn’t moody or too into itself, like the Black Keys can sometimes get. Instead, it’s loud and fun, never taking itself too seriously.

So whether the Creeping Ivies would qualify more as “blues” or “punk” I think would go to the latter. Penultimate track “What Would Johnny Ramone Do?” brings forth angst about MTV and the radio while channeling, again, an idol. “Ghost World” packs a bigger punch than first expected, and sounds very original in the midst of some bands that are starting to sound too similar. It’s loud, fun, distorted, and over not too long after it begins. It’s an album for a couple different eras, as long as it’s turned up.

The album is available for streaming and purchase here. (Bandcamp has a money conversion)

If you like this, try: As mentioned, I was reminded of the Cramps, so the Cramps’ classic 1980 debut, “Songs the Lord Taught Us.”

-By Andrew McNally