Ah, the dreaded sophomore album. Sure, bands have their whole life (up to that point) to record and release a debut album and can draw upon a wealth of life experiences for that initial record, but when the label comes calling for Album Number Two a scant 18 months after the first drops, what’s a band whose members’ only life experience during year-and-a-half has been nonstop touring supposed to do? The cut-out bins are overflowing with mediocre bands that opted for a sophomore concept album about groupie-shagging and the pressures of fame—ho-hum. Meanwhile, smart bands, bands that are in it for the long haul, think beyond themselves and craft clever character sketches for their second album while still retaining the sound that drew fans to them in the first place. Put Kings of Leon - brothers Caleb (vocals), Nathan (drums), and Jared (bassist) and cousin Matthew (guitar)—and their solid sophomore album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, firmly in the latter camp.
After the quiet opener “Slow Night, So Long”, where the band shows they’ve learned a few new tricks since their ‘03 debut, Youth and Young Manhood—Matthew’s cleaner guitar lines, Jared’s funky bass—the Kings reel off two winners with “King of the Rodeo” and “Taper Jean Girl”. The former is anchored by a quasi-bossa nova beat and boasts a catchy, if dumb, chorus of “Let the good times roll” and handclaps (and you can’t go wrong with handclaps). Meanwhile, “Taper Jean Girl” choogles in a distinctly Southern rock way, with a great booty-shakin’ bridge. But the song brings up a valid criticism of the band: Half the time, it’s impossible to determine what mush-mouthed frontman Caleb is singing. Here’s my stab at “Taper Jean Girl”‘s chorus: “Come squash the bodies / No room for nickel / I think he’s tasted / Tasted the washer”. Who knows? Maybe I’m giving the band credit for writing interesting songs when in reality they’re just stringing nonsense words together.
I bring this charge up, armed with more lyrics, as Caleb goes coherent in the quiet, atmospheric “Milk”. While it’s another character study, I haven’t the foggiest what he’s talking about when he describes a woman thusly: “She had problems with drinking milk / And being school tardy / She’ll loan you her toothbrush / She’ll bartend your party”. There’s something to be said for crafting too specific an image of a character.
Even so, in their defense, the band usually sounds good “stringing nonsense” together. To wit, the strutting “Four Kicks” (a Led Zeppelin play on words?) is a blistering streetfight with a “switchblade posse” and an equally sharp guitar solo; Caleb’s world-weary voice was made to sing a slow, acoustic song called “Day Old Blues”—and he even pulls off a convincing yodel in the song!
Admittedly, none of Aha Shake Heartbreak‘s dozen tunes match the immediacy of the debut’s “Molly’s Chambers” or “Joe’s Head”, but hey, that’s OK to these ears. There’s plenty to enjoy on the new album and Kings of Leon seem willing to play it slow and become a career act—and that’s something that doesn’t happen often enough these days.