Meet the Hanslick Girls: Gwen, Eleanor and Dania. Created by writer Zach Barr, they are a trio of friends who are always out experiencing the best of entertainment. Be it plays, films, concerts, exhibits, or games, they’ve learned that the arts are best when experienced together. They may not have the same opinions, but their conversations tend to make for an entertaining read. Recently, the Girls discussed “Sound & Color,” the 2015 genre-mixing album from blues rock band Alabama Shakes. Let’s listen in on their conversation…
Dania laid on her bed, headphones on, eyes closed. She was in a funk, and was attempting to de-funk herself the most effective way: music. American folk seemed the right pathway to follow, with the chill of Fall descending on the city – Gwen had already decked out the kitchen with decorative gourds. So Dania laid still, focusing her attention on the music of Alabama Shakes.
It had initially been a jarring experience. Following their début Boys & Girls, Dania had expected the more pure folk sound of that first album, which gave her the earworm “Hold On” in 2012. But the opening vibraphone sounds of Sound & Color‘s title track, immediately set an entirely new tone. What is this album? wondered Dania. It was calming, certainly. But it hadn’t been what she was expecting.
It was halfway through the chorus of “Gimme All Your Love,” a slick 1950s-style rock track, when Dania felt a tap on her knee. She pried open her eyes to catch Gwen, looking at the screen on Dania’s phone.
“Sound & Color,” Gwen read. “Good choice.”
Dania grumbled. She muttered a “yep” and rolled over.
“Are you all right?”
“Should I leave, or…”
Dania sighed. One one hand, listening to the music had calmed her down, and a good talk might do the same. Then again, compared to Alabama Shakes, conversations with Gwen tended not to be “easy listening.”
“I’m just resting,” Dania said. “Don’t worry.”
“Okay,” Gwen said. “Eleanor and I are out here if you need anything.”
Dania gave a thumbs up as Gwen walked out. After a moment, Dania looked up to check if Gwen had really left. With the coast clear, Dania reached down and restarted “Gimme All Your Love.” She didn’t want to miss any of the music.
The song began again. Although calm, its first four notes were a forceful string of triplet eighths, played on a whining guitar and doubled in snare hits. It seemed to emphasize the slow nature of the song, by establishing a faster tempo up front, before immediately returning to the pace of the rest of the album.
The word strange kept floating into Dania’s mind as she listened. Brittany Howard, the lead vocalist, entered the song almost undetected, with distorted vocals that made her sound like merely one of the other instruments. Her diction was slurred, and Dania could barely make out any lyrics besides the title – screamed into the mic just before the chorus.
It was like a dream, certainly. Absolutely the right music to take her mind off what had been bothering her before, if only because she was now preoccupied with figuring out what was happening in the music.
It almost felt empty – that’s it, actually, Dania thought. Boys & Girls, the album Dania had played to get through a difficult final year of secondary education, had a more full sound. The guitars, drums, and occasional string instruments had meshed together into a baseline – not ‘baseline’ in the sense of, like…well, I know what I mean – something solid that backed up Howard’s vocals. Sometimes songs were slower, but there was always a completeness to them.
That had vanished on Sound & Color. Entire songs – especially this one, she thought as the song “Miss You” rolled along – sounded to have been broken down to their pieces and rearranged. There was still a melody, for sure. But the songs were almost like skeletons of the original folk music.
Even the more complete songs seemed to have that experimental edge to them: the clear country influences of “Shoegaze,” and the electro-rock beats of “Future People.” The original Alabama Shakes sound, nominated for Best Rock Performance at the Grammys and bolstered by Howard’s distinctive Joplin-esque voice, was somewhere in the new album – not hidden, per se, but it could only be seen through the hazy filter of the new style.
You know what this is, Dania thought suddenly. This is like a remix album. Like, Alabama Shakes released some real album, or at least one closer to their original style, and then someone remixed it and turned it into this strange dreamlike album. She considered this. Man, I would totally listen to an album like that.
The music continued, taking her into the final song, “Over My Head.” The only sound Dania heard for the first minute was Howard’s voice, punctuated by the same keyboard chords that had kicked off the album.
The only thing cooler than that, she considered, is that the band basically did that remixing themselves.
Eleanor and Gwen sat in their living room, silently working in each other’s presence. Gwen, who liked to listen to music as she worked, nodded her head to the tracks of Boys & Girls, playing in her earbuds. Eleanor, undistracted by music, was the first to see Dania come into the room.
“Hey Dania,” Eleanor chimed.
“‘Sup,” Dania said. She collapsed into the couch, rubbing her eyes open.
“You’re all relaxed now?” Eleanor asked.
“Definitely,” Dania said, stifling a yawn. “Maybe too much.”
“What’d you do, fall asleep?”
Dania considered. Had she been asleep? She certainly wasn’t fully conscious, but rather in some kind of waking Delta-wave level of non-REM rest. She had been thinking hard about the music, separating the thick electric guitar from the thudding bass licks. That took concentration – and yet the music wasn’t hard to comprehend.
“No, I’m pretty sure I was awake,” Dania said, after a beat. “But it’s Sound & Color, you know. It’s all dreamy.”
“Oh yeah, that’s basically trance music,” Eleanor agreed.
“It’s not exactly Trance Music,” Gwen said, popping an ear out of the headphones.
Eleanor rolled her eyes. “Yeah, there’s a real thing called ‘Trance Music,’ but come on.” Eleanor pointed to the groggy Dania. “It’s music that put her in a trance.”
“It’s alternative,” Gwen said. “It won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album when it came out.”
“I thought it was nominated for Country album,” Eleanor said. “Or at least Folk Rock, if there’s a Grammy for that.”
“The first one was nominated for Rock album,” Gwen explained. “But the second one was more experimental. So it switched genres.”
“That feels right,” Dania said.
“I don’t know,” Eleanor said. “I’m more a fan of ‘Hold On’ and the original country style. Not the new reinvented version of them.”
“Same artists,” Gwen said. “Same passion for the music. I’d greatly support them getting out there and stretching their artistic visions.”
“Yeah, sure,” Eleanor said. “But at the center, it’s just false advertising, really.”
“What,” Dania said, “That they advertise as a rock band and then tricked people into buying an ‘alternative’ album instead?”
“No, just the album title versus the art.” Eleanor spun her computer around, where she had Googled the album cover.
“I see neither of the two things listed in the title in this album art,” she said.
Dania smiled. “Well, you’re not going to see the Sound part.”
“But the color, though.”
“Maybe that’s covered by the woman of color at the center,” Gwen suggested.
“That feels right,” Dania said. “I mean, it certainly sounds like she’s got a lot of passion, and she almost sounds like a country-style Aretha Franklin.”
“Alabama Shakes isn’t a band of color, though,” Eleanor said.
“What do you mean?” Dania asked. “It is a black woman at the front of it, right?”
“But,” Eleanor continued, “the other three musicians are all white dudes.”
Dania’s head shifted back, her face scrunching up. “What?”
“Yeah, it’s three white guys and one black woman,” Eleanor said. “It’s not, like, a predominantly black group, or even a predominantly female one.”
“That’s insane!” Dania said. “But…huh, I guess you can’t really tell from the album alone…”
“I’d say Alabama Shakes counts as an artist of color,” Gwen said. “Or, at least, the lead singer absolutely does, and she’s basically the whole band.”
“But she’s not a solo artist,” Eleanor countered. “Sure, she’s the face of it, but that doesn’t make it a black group. Look at, like, Pocahontas.”
“The Disney one?”
“Yeah. One woman of color. Surrounded by white men. Not really a Native American work of art.”
“That’s a false equivalency,” Gwen said. “Disney is its own corporate entity. Alabama Shakes started with the lead singer, and she writes all the lyrics. I’m pretty sure. It’s definitely driven by her, with the others supporting what she creates.”
“I don’t know if you get to sit there and tell me what is and isn’t a musician or band of color,” Eleanor said, raising an eyebrow.
Gwen threw up her hands, dropping the topic.
“Anyway,” Dania said, “it’s a very weird album. But it helped me relax, anyway.”
“Good for you,” Gwen said, sliding her headphones back on. “Don’t fall asleep.”
Dania smirked. As Eleanor and Gwen fell silent, Dania considered their discussion. True, Alabama Shakes was only one-quarter non-white. Still, there was something positive to the image of a black woman standing strong with her guitar, leading a band of white men in the genre of American folk. It was a semantic label to be discussed by the Eleanors and Gwens of the world, Dania supposed. For me, she thought, it’s music to be entranced by.
Image Credit: Consequence of Sound