On the title track of the Alabama Shakes sophomore album, “Sound & Color,” frontwoman and guitarist Brittany Howard muses, “A new world hangs outside the window / beautiful and strange / It must be I’ve fallen awake,” before declaring “this life ain’t like it was.”
No doubt life has changed dramatically for the former letter carrier and the rest of the dynamic rock group — guitarist Heath Fogg, bassist Zac Cockrell, and drummer Steve Johnson, and touring keyboard players Ben Tanner and Paul Horton — since their critically acclaimed 2012 debut, “Boys & Girls,” carried them around the world.
Anyone who has experienced the raw power of the band’s live show and Howard’s gale-force howl learned that the hype was earned, and “Sound & Color” makes clear this success was not a fluke. This is the sound of a band that’s in it for the long haul, amplifying what worked the first time, and stretching in new directions to challenge both the performers and their listeners.
Working from a sturdy base of band-composed, soul-suffused rock —
Much of the album, which is definitely a grower, finds Howard exploring an interior landscape and struggling to find peace of mind there.
“I’m losin’ it,” she laments on the grungy rocker “Dunes,” confessing “Somewhere over the dunes of love I walked / I wept enough I turned the desert into sea bed / I swam from the terrible depths,” as warped guitar and keyboard notes ping like bad ideas careening around the brain.
On the charged but weary single “Don’t Wanna Fight,” she worries that she will work herself to death and wonders mid-argument “Can’t we both be right?”
(A caveat for those who may be nursing emotional heartbreak when listening: Some tracks on “Sound & Color” could prove as much salt as salve for their wounds, as Howard never shies from letting vulnerability bleed into her voice from whisper to scream.)
There are also forays into spacy soul atmospherics, as Howard reaches for the outer limits of her vocal register on “Future People,” and examines a lifelong relationship of intertwined planets on the woozy “Gemini.”
Racing in the other direction are the bracing stomp of “The Greatest” and the slinky ambler “Shoegaze.” And as Howard pleads to hold on to a hard-won joy on “This Feeling,” it’s easy to root for Alabama Shakes to do just that. (Out Tuesday)
ESSENTIAL “This Feeling”