Almost 15 years ago, Kings of Leon released Aha Shake Heartbreak in November 2004, their sophomore album and second project produced by big-name English producer Ethan Johns. It’s half scratchy, lightly-tampered-with southern rock punctuated with Caleb Followill’s forlorn wails and half hooky, riffy White Stripes-esque earworms. Johns has worked with everyone from Counting Crows and Rufus Wainwright to Laura Marling and The Staves, but it was there—on those first few Kings of Leon records—where his classic rock instincts worked best.
Chicago band Twin Peaks were listening to Kings of Leon when they had the idea to call up Johns. He agreed to produce their new album Lookout Low under the condition they recorded it live at his studio in Wales. For a notoriously rowdy live band like Twin Peaks, who regularly sell out halls and clubs from coast to coast, Johns made the right call. He had the wherewithal to lay off the sound board and just let Clay Frankel and co. do their thing, jam and gel and juice up their respective instruments. And if you can’t make it out to see Twin Peaks in person, it’s the next best thing to the real deal. You can hear the scratchy wails and loose grooves loud and clear on Lookout Low.
What’s lacking are hooks. Where Aha Shake Heartbreak had contagious nuggets like “The Bucket,” this album has half-baked noodling and wannabe stoner anthems. More often than not, Twin Peaks sound like a jam band in training, rather than the rambunctious rockers who blew the roof off the garage on records like 2014’s Wild Onion and 2016’s Down in Heaven.
Lookout Low is slightly disappointing, but it really succeeds when the Chicago rockers lean into Johns’ free-for-all production methods. The little imperfections and textures that made it through to the final cut give these songs an attractive edge. “Unfamiliar Sun” flows and rocks with ease, so much so that it would sound right at home on a playlist with a song by Twin Peaks’ Chicago forefathers Wilco. “Under a Smile” is round and warm, even more so when a choir pops in and chases the song to A Night at the Opera-esque climax. The band is at their tightest on “Ferry Song,” where keyboardist Colin Crooms jams like it’s his job.
“Oh Mama” is sludgy enough to be a Sticky Fingers bonus track and is probably the album’s best interpretation of classic-rock-meets-Chicago-garage. A bluesy organ and shreddy guitar carry the song as guitarist Cadien Lake James shouts and hollers so much he practically meows. It works, and it’s a song that should be ridiculously fun live, but it does little more than emulate Keith and Mick. At other points in their career, they executed that impersonation with a lot more gusto.
While this record will no doubt be praised for its appropriate interpretation of classic rock (one that works eons better than, say, Greta Van Fleet’s plagiaristic take), it very often leans more towards the poppy soft rock of mainstream Bruce Hornsby. “Dance Through It” sounds like Doobie Brothers-era adult alternative, and kicker “Sunken II” plays with saxophone and ambience a little too much to be considered anything garage-adjacent. It leaves a lot of grit to be desired.
Lookout Low is 60% run-of-the-mill jamming and 40% pure, scuzzy originality, but it rarely sparkles. Twin Peaks can always bounce back, though. These songs are sure to stun live. Don’t let one mediocre recording session get in the way of your plans to see them next time they’re in town. I for one will be there—I just won’t be pregaming with Lookout Low.