Let's be honest. Alabama Shakes singer/guitarist Brittany Howard is going to be a star.
Even if she didn't have such a distinctive soulful wail and inviting croon, the way Howard lets the music send her into a pained swoon or angry indie-rock stomp across the stage is hard to forget once you've seen it.
In most cases, the plan would be to have her sing and stay out of her way. And that's sort of what happened with the band's well-received debut "Boys and Girls."
For the follow up, though, Alabama Shakes makes it clear that they are a band. On "Sound & Color" (ATO), Howard's voice is still the focal point, but guitarist Heath Fogg gets his time in the spotlight, as does the stellar rhythm section of bassist Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson.
Often, they now use Howard's voice like another instrument in their arsenal, having her repeat a phrase over and over like it was a riff or a sample. They do it on the chorus of "Don't Wanna Fight," making it a soul-inflected respite from all the angry struggling in the verses. "Over My Head" is built around a single line, creating a secular sort of meditation.
"Sound & Color" is also far more eclectic than their Southern rock-loving debut would suggest. "Shoegaze" comes on like "Some Girls"-era Rolling Stones, but Howard gives that strutting rock her own twist, on a chorus of "It ain't no fun to be alone." Her powerful falsetto on the slow-burning soul slice "Future People" sounds like it could have come from D'Angelo's experimental side, but that fat, fuzzed-out bass line makes it uniquely theirs. "Dunes" somehow calls to mind both Black Sabbath and Macy Gray, while the galloping punk opening of "The Greatest" is a hoot.
Alabama Shakes were on their way before, thanks to their hit "Hold On," but "Sound & Color" takes them to a whole new level, one where they show that they're a great band, not just a band with a great singer.
"Sound & Color"
THE GRADE A-
BOTTOM LINE Avoiding the sophomore slump by sharing the spotlight