Elle King’s voice sounds like an early morning after a late night. She sings with an appealing raspy power, throwing around attitude like she’s tossing candy off a parade float as she breezes through songs stocked with hooks. Yet King’s second album is a puzzling affair. For all her brassy confidence and natural ability, Shake the Spirit feels somehow impersonal.
The album plays like a kind of musical revue, with nods at muscular rock, old-school spy movie songs, vintage soul, ’60s girl groups and tunes that blend elements of all four. King swaggers her way around opener “Talk of the Town,” her voice cutting through crackling guitars and a swift, pulsing beat. “Baby Outlaw,” which is (sadly) not about a law-breaking infant, finds her in femme fatale mode, warning off would-be villains with a recitation of her various badass traits, and a healthy measure of slinky guitar wrapped in reverb. “Good Thing Gone” pairs King’s throaty vocals with a deep-pocket rhythm, stylish guitar licks and horns steeped enough in the Muscle Shoals soul sound that they could have come straight out of Fame Recording Studios circa 1971. There’s a low-key funk vibe on “It Girl” as King offers a lacerating, satirical perspective on what it takes for young women to be popular (“use a little spit, girl”), and she rolls her eyes at heteronormative stereotypes of masculinity on “Man’s Man,” accompanied by a steady, relentless bassline you can’t help but move to.
Taken one by one, the songs are solid, catchy and sometimes compelling. But they don’t hang together as a group, which gives Shake the Spirit a scattershot feel. It’s an Elle King album, to be sure—her voice is what stitches these songs together, though what is probably supposed to be evidence of her range often feels like she’s trying on musical costumes. The result is a lack of cohesion that turns Shake the Spirit into a series of genre exercises. They’re impressive for what they are, but there’s not enough depth to merit digging much below the surface.