The Kings of Leon have been whisked to the crucial point in any moderately successful rock band’s career — the anticipated sophomore album. This highly scrutinized record often determines the critical fate and sales triumph of the now not-so-new buzz-band. Fortunately, the Kings of Leon have succeeded in maintaining their rural rock expertise with Aha Shake Heartbreak.
There’s something amusing about the Kings being the offspring of a Southern Evangelist minister. This spiritual association, though, is not the first thing to come to mind when their magazine spreads and interviews show a literal band of brothers and cousins on their way to a full revival of Southern-fried garage rock. The Kings do not sing about religion, nor do they radiate any sort of Jesus-worshiping persona. Still, their position as ministers’ children puts an inviting twist on their involvement in the type of music that their dad might not endorse.
The Kings have tired out their worn comparisons to proper country folk like the Strokes, and with Aha Shake, they’ve taken their frenetic guitar lines and bouncy bass riffs to a level that a humble second full length should offer. Though the record lacks the overall feverish and frenzied ambience of their debut, Youth and Young Manhood, it still picks up where they left off. Perhaps weariness guided the boys to a record grounded more in moodier pieces of personal experience than the fancily wishful, Southern party-life tales of Youth. Singer guitarist Caleb Followill’s vocals are still slurred and indecipherable, but thanks to the sonically messy, yet obsessively specific instrumentals, this is not a hindering issue.
The jumpy riffing of “Velvet Snow” is both frantic and precise, with Jared Followill’s bass banging an unending whir among the furious picking. His mechanical bass-playing style complements the raw guitar sound of a sloppy garage band. This messiness, though, is an aspect of the Kings’ live recording style, courtesy of familiar producer Ethan Johns’, that makes their songs shine with glossless live appeal. Aha’s first single, “The Bucket” is a feel good, drum rolling head bopper that turns into a danceable gem by the final guitar solo from Jared Followill. “Taper Jean Girl” offers the enjoyable simplicity of three shrill notes atop jangling, modest drumming from Nathan Followill. On “Soft,” Caleb explores his most sexually revealing lyrics, screeching as romantically as he can, “I’d pop myself in your body / I’d come into your party, but I’m soft.” Not the most touchingly tender lyrics here, but still pretty damn genuine.
The album suffers from a few weak moments as the Kings try to slow down the Southern frenzy with molasses like acoustic ballads. “Milk” may put a listener to sleep, and “Day Old Blues,” another overly pensive tune, is just not as interesting as Caleb’s yelping vocals in the twang-filled songs that surround it.
The Kings’ heightened popularity in the U.K. , where Aha was released nearly three months ago, and upcoming opening slot for U2 raise the stakes for Shake in a big way. Though they care more about how they look than your average hillbilly rock troupe, this family of religious classic rock lovin’ boys follows suit with a sophomore effort that should have daddy thanking the Lord for his bearded sons’ obsession with sparse, flavorful Southern rock tunes.
Music Review: 3 1/2 out of 5 stars