By Kyle Anderson
Updated April 28, 2015 at 02:57 PM EDT
Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Has there been a more perfect introduction to a band than Alabama Shakes’ first single, “Hold On”? The track from the Athens, Ala., foursome’s goldselling 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, laid out the group’s platonic ideal: slinky, groovy bar blues with just enough grit to leave an impression, but not enough to eclipse the national treasure that is frontwoman Brittany Howard’s unforgettable voice.

Those pipes, which can slide from primal yowls to intimate whispers, are at the center of the Shakes’ confident follow-up, Sound & Color. Even with some welcome stylistic twists, including the dubby psychedelic shuffle “Guess Who” and expansive end-of-days epic “Gemini,” Howard remains the focal point—as she should. Few singers on the radio today are capable of sweetly crooning about being swept off their feet (“Over My Head”), belting away romantic frustration (lead single “Don’t Wanna Fight”), and blues-talking bad decisions (“Shoegaze”) with equal fluency.

The songs here are far more intricately constructed than anything on the band’s debut, and the musicianship is disciplined almost to a fault; a little unbridled rocking out would actually have injected some needed verve into Color’s quieter second half. Still, Howard manages to elevate even the sleepy “This Feeling,” and any instrument noisier than gentle drums and acoustic strums would have distracted from the stunning way she wraps her raspy coo around the phrase “I spent all this time trying to find my way here.” She has the innate ability to make the most everyday sentiments sound transcendent, which is as fitting a job description for a star as there is. A–

BEST TRACKS DON’T WANNA FIGHT The subtly funky first single DUNES A slow-burning space-rocker