Knowing Merseybeat enthusiasts everywhere must have breathed a sigh of relief upon the release of the Kaisers' fifth studio album earlier this year. While the group has never been adept at keeping its fans informed (i.e., it still has no official website), it has been prolific in the studio, so a four-year break from recording had fans whispering about a possible split. Those worries are put to rest now that the Kaisers are back with an altered lineup but with a sound that hasn't changed much since their last studio album in 1998. Actually, it's a sound that hasn't changed much since the early 1960s, since the Kaisers are a throwback to the days when the Beatles wore matching suits and ties, recorded live in the studio, and still drew inspiration from American R&B. The Kaisers give people who think of the Live at the Star Club albums as the Beatles' masterpieces somewhere to go besides conventions and pilgrimages to Hamburg. That's not to say that the Edinburgh, Scotland foursome is as good as the Beatles, but it's just that they have been the most reliable, authentic source for this kind of music since they started out in the '90s.
For gear-heads hell-bent on the idea that no musical era could be as exciting as the Beatles' Hamburg days, the Kaisers are the closest any of them are ever going to get to seeing the Fab Four in their messy, wild prime. To their credit, the Kaisers are far from being a lame Beatlemania II. Rather, they are a tight, rocking unit capable of writing their own originals in the Mersey style, and they are adept at harmonizing as well. Whether or not you'll enjoy the Kaisers, though, depends on how willing you are to come along for the retro ride. The group is dead serious about sticking to its chosen style, right down to recording in mono, wearing the aforementioned matching suits, and imitating '60s-style cover art.
The Kaisers' first three albums, Squarehead Stomp, In Step with the Kaisers, and Beat It Up!, were short, exciting collections of songs that paid homage to the style of early British rock, and the only problem with them, if there was one at all, was that they painted the band into a corner. Could the Kaisers remain true to their original concept without simply repeating themselves? In some ways, the 1998 album Wishing Street seemed to address that question. It focused much more on balladry and tender melodies than its predecessors, but sacrificed the raw energy of the group's live shows in the process. Those who feel that the musical progression on Wishing Street made up for what the album lacked in energy are bound to see Shake Me! as a step backward, but for those like me, who found the previous album too restrained, it will be welcomed as a return to form.
There are still a few ballads on Shake Me!, but of them, only the instrumental closer "Little Bird" could be called gentle. "Angel of Love" has enough guitar tricks to stay interesting, while "Now's the Time" and "Don't Torture Me" focus on the topic of romance without dipping below mid-tempo. As for the rockers, standouts include the fast-paced ravers "Jenny G" and "No Other Guy." "Foolish One" opens with a Dave Davies "Till the End of the Day" riff, and "Miserabella" is a fun novelty number with hammy vocals (something that even the original Fab Four was not above doing).
For all its virtues, though, it's hard not to notice that the album's rockers don't rock quite as hard as the ones on the first three Kaisers releases. Maybe it's just that the group's formula, which was an old one when they started, seems a bit stale at this point. After all, they've now played in the early Beatles style longer than the Beatles did. Could there be anything in their future besides sitars, granny glasses, and pot smoke?