Brittany Howard is not one for the easy path. A dozen-odd years ago, she burst onto the scene as the fiery lead singer of Alabama Shakes, a rootsy combo that brought hope to rock fans, just as the uneasy realization set in that there weren’t many interesting traditional rock bands coming up anymore. The group’s greasy grooves fit into any number of musical contexts — they opened for artists from Jack White to jam bands and stole the show at any number of festivals — and their debut release set the stage for the galvanizing 2015 follow-up, “Sound & Color.” By the time the Shakes finished that album’s cycle, they’d won four Grammys and become one of the world’s major rock bands. All Howard had to do was follow that arrow, and a long, multiplatinum career seemed all but guaranteed.
However, that’s exactly what she decided not to do. Howard embarked on a solo career as the group went on hiatus (although Shakes bassist Zac Cockrell and touring keyboardist Paul Horton remain with her), releasing a challenging 2019 album called “Jaime” that explored multiple genres and rarely stayed in one place for long. The album seemed designed to keep listeners on their toes, never expecting what’s coming next even after repeat listens, although the songs went down a bit easier on her subsequent tours.
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So, as the new album’s title says, “What Now”? Well, for her Island Records debut, Howard has delivered a record that is every bit as uncompromising as its predecessor but much more fully realized — and it even includes a couple of bangers. The album opens with a virtual choir of Howards on the majestic “Earth Sign,” then follows with the gorgeous “I Don’t,” which sounds like an early ‘’70s soul hit by the Chi-Lites or the Delfonics — albeit with sweetly Auto-Tuned backing vocals. Things kick into high gear with the driving, funky title track — a fuzzed-out rocker with an intense, soaring chorus that’s the record’s most fan-pleasing and arguably most exciting song.
The offbeat “Red Flags,” follows, and even stranger things ensue: “To Be Still” consists of her multitracked vocals and a gentle backing and is vaguely reminiscent of oddball auteurs like Serpentwithfeet; “Prove It” is an electronic-rhythm-powered love song; there’s a gentle, jazzy, electric-piano-driven ballad called “Samson” that’s offset by a strangely lurching rhythm and a lovely trumpet solo that snakes through the song and takes center stage for the last couple of minutes. The album closes with an experimental, almost free-jazz track titled “Every Color in Blue,” which kind of sums up the song. tracks are intermittently connected by the sound of gentle bells — apparently “Crystal Singing Bowls performed by Ramona Reid of The Frequency Center & Ann Sensing,” according to the credits — that provide the only real connective tissue between the far-ranging numbers.
Throughout, Howard revels in the possibilities that her mighty, versatile voice offers, unafraid to make it sound strange, threatening, distorted or unlike a human voice at all — and with the exception of a spoken-word passage from Maya Angelou, every voice on the album (and a large percentage of the instrumentation) comes from her.
“What Now” is much more consistent and welcoming than “Jaime,” but it’s not an easy ride. —It travels to so many different places that you kind of look up during “Samson’s” closing trumpet solo and try to remember, How did we get here? But for listeners up for an adventure — for an album that reveals itself gradually, continues to surprise after several listens and takes you places you didn’t necessarily know you wanted to go — there are many rewards in store.
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