In 2003, the auspicious debut EP Holy Roller Novocaine presented Kings Of Leon as a pack of scruffy Southern rockers with sharp hooks, like a poppier version of Drive-By Truckers. Later that year, Kings Of Leon released the hyped-up Youth & Young Manhood, which included four Holy Roller songs re-recorded to match an overall sound that was thinner and sparer, sort of like a hick version of The Strokes. Young Manhood is a solid record, but at the time, it sounded like a band reaching for a new voice before it had learned to talk.
The follow-up, Aha Shake Heartbreak, moves even further toward post-punk and away from twangeven the opening notes of the album-opener, "Slow Night, So Long," resemble Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." But Aha is also a more confident and surprising set, capable of moving in any direction at any time, as witnessed by "Slow Night, So Long"'s unexpected lullaby coda. Lead singer Caleb Followill carries on like Mick Jagger in his sassy/sad "Miss You" guise, while his brothers and cousins bash out simple riffs halfway between Velvet Underground at its grubbiest and Black Flag at its bass-driven hookiest. Kings Of Leon sounds lean and limber, ready to spring, rolling from call-and-response spirituals to whip-crack boogie on "Pistol Of Fire," shooting laser-pulsing guitar riffs across rapid-fire square-dance calls on "King Of The Rodeo," building a song out of a single long, low groan on "Milk," and letting bongos cushion the second-generation UK tropicalia of "Soft." Aha Shake Heartbreak fuses gutter-rock fury and sex-obsessed adolescent pop, serving as a reminder of how the punk kids of the '80s were able to embrace The Smiths and Social Distortion simultaneously.
Meanwhile, Kings Of Leon's sudden disinterest in conventional song structures either serves as an admission that the band lacks the chops to compete with the deep-fried, corn-crusted arena rockers it once emulated, or as a bold expression of the power of deconstruction. By letting a song peter out rather than end properly, Kings Of Leon may be signaling that rock 'n' roll only needs the good parts of songs, and doesn't need verses and bridges as an excuse to get to them. Or maybe the band just doesn't know any better. Whatever the reason for the thrillingly shoddy presentation, the result is an album that holds the ultimate pop contradiction: it sounds both unpretentious and new.