The Districts entered a stage populated by mannequins with heads cut off and replaced with heat lamps, clutching a jug of water in one hand and a guitar in the other. A group of kids barely out of high school, singing for a crowd mostly pushing thirty, screaming their lungs out and drinking their minds blank. Stuffed into the narrow black rectangle that is DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel, where the sound bounced a little too much and views were perpetually blocked by someone’s taller shoulders. When the swaying chanced to offer a window to the stage, you could see their singer often nearly doubled over, attacking his guitar strings, or three steps away from the microphone, leaning to the point of nearly toppling over, seemingly defying gravity by shouting into the crowd. Most young singers would have this turn into a scream-fest, but despite the obvious outpouring, the vocals never strayed into chaos. Pathos of the inflections intact, you could even make out most of the lyrics.
The Districts write great songs and they play with impressive energy, but in watching them for just a few minutes, you get the feeling that their understanding goes deeper than that. Great bands can tap into a certain dichotomy live. That it’s just music, that we all just happen to be here on the same night and it’s nothing to shout home about; it’s a trifling matter and a life or death situation. That seeing someone rip out their soul, scream it to the crowd, and then for those same people to soak it in and shout it back to the stage can feel like the most important act in the world. That anything could happen at any moment, even if all that happens is some noise blasting out a speaker. It’s a quality that the best live bands achieve without even trying. The Districts aren’t there yet, but you can see the dynamic there, and it’s a thrilling thing to watch.
The show wasn’t perfect; pacing was a major problem. Each time the energy of the room started to hit a cathartic high, the song ended and we were treated to sometimes 3 or 4 minutes of the band gathering themselves, tuning their guitars (again?!?) and chugging water. Still, hearing a room full of people scream into the rafters, “Long distance, long time! Isn’t easier!” building to sweaty fans jumping maniacally to 4th And Roebling, ending on a slow burn group chant of the chorus, “I ain’t the same any more, I’m not the same as before…” a proper show closing cures all imperfections. The only thing that matters is that nothing outside that cramped black room does. Like the best arena rockers, they’re able to take a song soaked in regret and weariness and turn it into an affirmation, a couple hundred people connected for a night, ever so slightly changed.
This review was originally written for antiquiet.com, you can read the original here.
Don’t Wanna Fight starts off innocuously enough. A bouncing guitar melody echoing from both sides, pleasant on the ears. Then the drums enter, steady and deep, more dusty hip hop sample than Stax retread, booming with purpose. Guitars step in, we’re informed that they’re up to no good. And then that squeal. The whole song is that squeal. There’s a 44 second intro and 3 minutes and nine seconds of an outro surrounding that squeal from Brittany Howard. After 2012’s very-good-but-not-quite-transcendent debut the question lingered; was this the kind of band that would fade away after some early buzz? Would they fuck around and put out a string of boilerplate follow-ups? Don’t Wanna Fight was the first single for the album as well as a sure footed answer to those questions. A resounding “no.”
As tempting as it might have been to keep cooking up Southern soul and classic rock (and when you’ve got a singer and band this good, you can skate by for quite a while with that) the Alabama Shakes have chosen to push themselves further than their debut ever hinted at. Future People rides a stumbling guitar figure propped up by jagged strummed edges, buffeted by ethereal coos before a squelching, fuzz drenched stomp descends for the chorus. Gimme All Your Love rides the airborne mortar shot of Howard’s compelling demand, “If you just GIMME ALL YOUR LOVEEEE” before landing in an organ drenched pillar of hot magma obliterating your speakers. Be careful not to snap your neck nodding along. Sound And Color is a visceral and visual album, a collection of songs that stick in your head thanks to equal measures of melodies worming their way in and riffs smacking you across the face.
The showstoppers are plentiful, but the more deliberate numbers are just as effective. The opening title track starts with a simple chord progression played on a keyboard that sounds like an organ laid over top of a children’s xylophone. Typically something like this would be pro-forma intro fodder, but it draws you in. There’s swaths of space, not quite identical in length, in between notes that makes even the simplest playing sound supernatural. It’s an aspect of playing that young bands spend years mastering (echoing the age-old complaint of young bands playing too fast) and Alabama Shakes nails it from the first track.
Album highlight Gemini is a six minute treatise on that idea, a stunner that never breaks from a plodding tempo, yet ratchets up the melodrama and dynamics regardless. The beat is almost stiffing in its consistency, never wavering, but taking long enough between snare hits to make you wonder every time if it’s actually going to land again. Sung in a D’Angelo-esque haze, it’s other-worldly mood matched by the interstellar lyrics, they aren’t just detailing a failed relationship, their blowing the world to pieces with laser-like fuzz guitar ascending from the static. There’s traces of the building blocks that made their debut sound so engaging and familiar, but its expressed in a way that is uniquely and completely theirs.
Given the prevailing tropes around sophomore albums (the slumps, the retreads, etc.) amid ascending expectations, it would have been unfair to expect Alabama Shakes to improve so much this fast. Sound And Color is that rare triumph that sees a group not only begin to master their craft, but to do it in a way that is both familiar and brand new. It’s the same group and the same voice exploding in a thousand different directions