When Kings of Leon released their full length debut, 2003’s Youth & Young Manhood, I found it hard not to meet them with the same casual disinterest I typically reserve for The Strokes, Jet and other faux-retro bands that look like Sweathogs but smell like Gap models. I mean, sure, rockist snots like myself can abide the pseudo-vintage craze by acknowledging that at least it’s preferable to the boy-band tsunami of years past, but embracing a band of the Kings’ ilk feels eerily like settling for a soy burger when you’re craving a nice bloody steak. Hell, when a group’s key selling point is that they sound like so-and-so, you owe it to yourself to be at least healthily skeptical. Referential chic, after all, is simply bored/jaded nostalgia prompting you to buy stock in the inferior ghosts of yesteryear’s great bands.
Listening to Kings of Leon’s sophomore offering is admittedly far more satisfying when you drop all the Skynyrd and Creedence expectations and simply let yourself hear the songs for what they are. Despite these brothers’ suspicious fashion statements, there’s something about Caleb Followill’s junkyard growl and Matthew Followill’s grit-jangle licks that suggest depths beyond the obvious influences. In that respect Aha Shake Heartbreak sounds like a promising step forward, particularly in the way producer Ethan Johns offers squiggles of texture (a deft keyboard here, a sweetened guitar there) that nudge the Followill boys ever so slightly out of the garage. Make no mistake, the menu still serves up plenty of ’60s and ’70s Southern rockisms, but hints abound that the compositional range of the Kings extends well beyond the swamps.
At the end of the day, what keeps Aha Shake Heartbreak from being a really great album is that it’s a vicious tease from start to finish. In song after song there are moments where it sounds like the band is weaving its way into a fantastic instrumental jam section, only to have the new idea abruptly cut short by the track’s end or an obligatory return to the next verse. It’s almost as if the entire disc was meticulously edited for some 3-minute AM radio world that no longer exists.
The closest the band comes to catching fire is the clever ending of cynical one-night-stand tune “Slow Night, So Long,” but even then you’re left holding on for some dynamic bass-and-drum interplay or a solo or scat or something other than the next track, only to have it duly wind you up again just enough to leave you flat when it refuses to cut loose into exploration. Either the Kings of Leon are afraid of exposing the limits of their instrumental prowess, some A&R guy refused to let Heartbreak resemble a jamband album due to marketing considerations, or Ethan Johns forgot what decade we were in and mistakenly assumed he only had a tenth-inch of real estate left on the 45.
Quite a shame, really—Aha Shake Heartbreak contains thirteen songs stood up on the launch pad, just waiting to blast off if anyone deigned to allow these Welcome Back, Kotter refugees a slightly longer leash. Count this one a missed opportunity and an exercise in the difference between being numbly tided-over and truly satisfied.