NEW YORK — So many promising music careers are tripped up by the challenge of following a successful debut that its perils are an industry cliche.
Now the Alabama Shakes face this unavoidable rite of passage. The bar band from Athens, Alabama with electrifying frontwoman Brittany Howard sold 737,000 copies of its first disc, earned three Grammy nominations, performed twice on “Saturday Night Live,” played for President Obama and earned critical hurrahs.
Faced with the choice of fulfilling or confounding expectations with its new “Sound & Color” (released last month), the Shakes chose the latter. The band is challenging its audience to move forward, almost defiantly so. During its first Coachella performance in April, the set list notably did not include “Hold On,” “Hang Loose” or “Always Alright,” three of the young act’s best-known songs.
“We knew some people would probably want a similar record and there were some people who would probably be frustrated if we did something similar,” said guitarist Heath Fogg, neatly summarizing the classic second album dilemma. “There’s no point in trying to please anybody other than ourselves.”
The vibraphone that heralds the album-opening sound collage seems a signal to check preconceived notions at the door.
The band describes the adventurousness of “Sound & Color” as less a strategy than a reflection of the creative process.
Howard said that when she began writing songs, she quickly got bored because it seemed she was trying to write songs that were familiar, that sounded like things she had already written. That self-awareness freed her to experiment more.
“It’s a pretty eclectic mixed bag of things that we like,” Howard said. “It wasn’t intentional. I think we just had grown up as artists and players. There’s so much that we are into and so much that we like. The roots of our music will always be there, because that’s how we get along with each other. But there are so many languages, as far as music goes, that we can speak with to one another.”
Howard said she didn’t want fans to think that the band is leaving anything behind. “It’s just there and it’s more,” she said.
The quartet, which also includes bass player Zac Cockrell and drummer Steve Johnson, can supplement their sound with additional players. And music isn’t just a day job or night job. It’s their only jobs.