Kings of Leon — singer-guitarist Caleb, drummer Nathan and bass guitarist Jared Followill, all brothers, and their cousin, lead guitarist Matthew Followill — are a great young rock & roll band from Tennessee that has made two nearly great albums. Aha Shake Heartbreak is the second one, and like the first, 2003's Youth and Young Manhood, it is a fuzz-encrusted rocket of controlled violence: the first Clash LP with AC/DC brawn and American Gothic backbone.
Also like Youth and Young Manhood, Aha Shake Heartbreak is just a handful of kicks and shivers short of pulverizing excellence. One of the best things about this album is its promise: knowing how much more fun you'll have when the Kings — already sporting the best hair in twenty-first-century garage rock (like a frontier-militia version of the Seeds) — nail that Exile on Main Street-style balance between rigor and ruthlessness, discipline and blowout.
Born into a fundamentalist Christian family, the Followills have come to the devil's music via the Lord's work; the brothers grew up on the road with their father, Leon, a traveling evangelist. In concert, the Kings tear the air with all of the contradictory tension that implies: pump-action guitars and hellbent gallop honed with Amish-Ramones austerity; songs of going wrong and paying dearly, sung by Caleb in a tent-show Bon Scott howl, like he's choking on brimstone.
The records almost get you there. Heartbreak is an instance when that hoary music-biz cliche — "They're better onstage" — rings true; ironically so, since the Kings and producer Ethan Johns recorded Aha Shake Heartbreak live in the studio, with no overdubs. They didn't seem to spend anything on reverb either. The saloon-brawl guitars and wolf-eye glow of Manhood have been exchanged here for a dark, dry mood that, on first listen, mutes the Kings' transgressive fury and pop-hook luster. Never mind the hill-country Strokes comparisons of two years ago. The odd beat math and angular stab of the guitars in "King of the Rodeo" sound like barn-dance Wire.But once you adjust to the jutting-riff edges in the first song, "Slow Nights, So Long," and the way Caleb's vocal and Matthew's chiming guitar pull against the beat, the classic rock inside the Kings busts out. The dirty, grunting strum at the front is a nifty tip o' the amp to the Who's "Goin' Mobile," and Nathan gets to liberate his inner Keith Moon, usually held in puritan check, in the breaks. In "The Bucket," the pneumatic guitars and Nathan's tom-tom rolls brake into a chorus of harmonized sighs over a stuttering heartbeat that sends you back to the Ronettes' "Be My Baby."
The Kings have a unique momentum — Jared's bass often plays the anchoring riff, sandwiched by the snort and snarl of the guitars — and the band frequently splits its songs into separate verse, chorus and bridge rhythms and tempos, a variant on Nirvana's soft-loud dynamic. It's an effective whiplash. "Razz" zips by like three different Gang of Four songs in two minutes, and "Taper Jean Girl" is a tight, swaggering-guitar march with a chorus of rubbery foreboding and a final double-time explosion that, frankly, doesn't go on long enough.
The sinning, seeking and tortured faith in Caleb's vocals never stop. As a singer, he's an instrument of visceral rather than literal sense, barking in tongues as he fights for a grip on hope and equilibrium. But there's only so much terror and vengeance he can wring from this album's stern atmosphere. I'll definitely take the purity of Heartbreak's production over the desperate airplay measures that marred many later Ramones albums. But it may be time for the Kings to take a chance with someone who knows how to build the kind of ambience that comes down like a hammer — say, Rick Rubin.
Still, as Caleb sings in "Day Old Blues," "At least there's a record that I love to play" — over and over, until that third, perfect album comes round the mountain.