April 2024

Island Records 602458769012
Format: CD

Musical Performance

Sound Quality

Overall Enjoyment

Brittany Howard’s first solo disc, Jaime, demonstrated the talent that was evident in her work with Alabama Shakes and Thunderbitch. Howard’s contributions to those projects only hinted at her versatility and eagerness to take chances—the 2019 solo album, which I reviewed on SoundStage! Access, showcased a wider range of influences. Howard’s second album, What Now, is even more audacious than Jaime, and contains even more surprises.

Howard ties much of What Now together with Tibetan singing bowls, which open the album and return as one track fades into the next. “Earth Sign” begins with the calm drone of the singing bowls; then Howard’s voice enters, introduced by a piano chord. Backed by a multitracked harmony vocal, she sings: “Out there / Out there / There’s a love waiting for me.” More voices filter in, doctored with various studio effects, as Howard sings about her longing for love. Nate Smith’s drums enter explosively, the kick drum centering the music as voices and keys grow to create a rich array of sound. The effect is large, stately as a church choir, and thrilling.

What Now

“I Don’t” switches gears, showing a strong Curtis Mayfield, Chicago-soul influence. Howard gives the backing vocals a high-pitched, almost cartoonish quality at points, but the effect serves to underline the feelings of isolation expressed in the lyrics. Howard’s guitar lines point to the Mayfield lineage of the song. Smith and bassist Zac Cockrell provide the rhythmic flow to the title track, a slice of 1970s funk that contains hints of Stevie Wonder. Howard plays a monster guitar riff throughout the song—one of several on the album that made me realize I had severely underestimated her skill on the instrument.

Howard doesn’t directly copy her influences, instead combining them in ways that caught me by surprise throughout the disc. “Red Flags” injects a dose of psychedelia into the tune’s classic sweet soul, and Howard gives herself over completely to her vocals without slipping into excess. She accompanies herself on guitar for “To Be Still” to create a calm, beautiful ballad. The song moves into easy funk in the closing 45 seconds as Cockrell enters on bass, along with Howard’s overdubbed drums.

On “Interlude,” the singing bowls and a harp create a calming backdrop for the poet Maya Angelou, who reads from her poem “A Brave and Startling Truth.” With a change in mood and force, the track quickly gives way to “Another Day.” Howard brings a hint of Prince to the track; not surprisingly, since Howard shares his easy command of genres and willingness to combine them in unexpected ways. Smith’s drums, processed to give the kick drum a broad, distorted sound, crisscross with synth lines throughout the track to create a propulsive rhythm. “Prove It to You” has a similarly dense and insistent rhythm track that doesn’t get in the way of the grand, melodic ideas flowing through it.

“Samson” is the most luxurious and sonically rich track on What Now, and the hardest to pin a genre on. Howard sings the ballad in an understated jazz style, with keyboards, drums, and other instruments swirling around her. Rod McGaha’s trumpet lines shadow her vocals, growing more intense as the song builds. Midway, Howard gives the song over to McGaha, who solos for the rest of the song as it moves through changes in rhythm and feel.

McGaha also adds his trumpet to “Every Color in Blue,” a Radiohead-flavored track—built around Howard’s stunning guitar riff—that brings What Now to a stirring close. Howard sings about love all through What Now: its triumphs, difficulties, disappointments, and frustrations. “Every Color in Blue” takes us to the end of an affair, where Howard exclaims: “I can’t believe / I’m all out of rainbows.” Even though What Now ends on an ambivalent note about romance, Howard lets light in here and there on the rest of the album. “Patience” describes some hesitation about entering into a new love affair, but Howard still closes the song with hope: “Let’s do it, let’s do it / Fall in love / (Wanna try) Fall in love.”

What Now

Howard coproduced What Now with Shawn Everett, and recorded it at several studios. CD playback on my system sounded compressed, with a very high output. Dropping the volume to a comfortable listening level brought instruments into better focus and placed Howard’s voice front and center. The recording is crammed with instruments and sounds, but pulling the volume back allowed me to enjoy the music and catch more with each play.

I have a few Alabama Shakes CDs, but Brittany Howard’s work on Jaime and now on What Now is stunningly assured and moves her into the front ranks of songwriters and singers. What Now is a stronger and even more varied album than its predecessor, more alive with the thrill of discovery. Howard seems to have realized she has the talent to accomplish anything she chooses, creatively. That awareness appears to delight her—a delight Howard passes on to us. I doubt I’ll hear a better album this year.

. . . Joseph Taylor