Elle King’s breakthrough 2015 hit “Ex’s and Oh’s” pulled off a neat trick: It was catchy mainstream rock that felt fresh without making concessions to hip-hop or EDM. King’s touchstones were Nancy Sinatra, Dusty Springfield, Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti-western-soundtrack twang and T. Rex glam shuffle. Her debut LP, Love Stuff, filled out that sound with a relatable persona — a blues rocker running from time, addiction, the devil and, of course, her pesky exes. Whereas fellow retro-loving diva Lana Del Rey played the coy, gothy, California dreamer, King came on like a butt-kicking rocker-heroine wailing through her pain.
Turns out, she was living that drama too. King spent the years since her initial success dealing with the fallout of a short, secret, troubled marriage, a subsequent divorce, substance abuse and rehab. You can hear her map out her story, lyrically, as her impressive second album, Shake the Spirit, progresses. At the start of the LP, she’s the venomous man-eater of songs like “Shame” (“Trouble’s what you need/That’s what you getting with me”), “Baby Outlaw” (“Pity the man that stands in my way/I’m a nightmare even in the day”) and “Man’s Man” (“Oh, and by the way/While you were away/I fucked somebody on our one-year wedding anniversary day”).
The back end of the record, however, is more regretful, fitting a down-to-earth Americana sound created by King and her five-piece rock band, the Brethren. Slow-winding, country-fried soul throwback ballads like “Good Thing Gone” turn the spotlight back on herself: “We could’ve tried a bit harder/I could’ve practiced more patience/Look at this good love we’ve wasted,” she croons. “Sober” plays like country bummer queen Mary Gauthier, and “Runaway” isn’t too far from the Del Shannon song of the same name but gender-flipped to reveal that the woman doing the running away has been hurt by love too many times.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact amount of pride versus remorse in “It Girl,” a cheeky indie-confessional/girl-group novelty song about giving middle-school hand jobs, but its “What if Liz Phair sang for the Crystals?” vibe is hilarious, irresistible and occasionally poignant: “You could be the It girl/If you use a little spit, girl.”
She ends the album with a burst of resilience. “Little Bit of Lovin’ ” is a six-minute gospel-rock rave-up that suggests Aretha Franklin in 1967 via the Rolling Stones in 1969. “I don’t need nobody/ I don’t need no one/But I still got a little bit of lovin’ left in me,” she sings. The sound is vintage, the hard-won swagger is brave and brand-new.