While The Duke & The King touts itself as heavily influenced by glam and soul, it starts its self-titled album with an introverted whisper. “If You Ever Get Famous”—the track that also opens the group’s 2009 debut, Nothing Gold Can Stay, one of two import-only discs this eponymous U.S. release was culled from—is a soothing snooze-alarm of a song, in which frontman Simone Felice reflects on fame with his nose pressed up against the glass. What the song lacks in explosiveness, it makes up for in breathy tenderness and Felice’s trembling, Cat Stevens-like croon, qualities he brought to his songs as a member of The Felice Brothers. But “If You Ever Get Famous” is deceptive; by the disc’s end, there’s no doubt Felice has turned the tables on himself and is ready to embrace his encroaching role as a slinger of rousing yet laidback anthems.
The first anthem comes in the form of “Shaky,” a righteous slice of pop gospel that references, either lyrically or sonically, everything from CSNY to Lou Reed to The Jackson 5. That stew of influences—heavy on the acoustic glam of early T. Rex and the simmering, slinky funk of Muscle Shoals—carries the band through a set of gorgeous retro-rock topped with Felice’s drifting voice and wry-yet-warm wordplay. And when he steps back to let his bandmates sing lead, the result is stunning: Drummer Nowell Haskins lends his cavernous soulfulness to “Hudson River,” and backup singer Simi Stone is so honeyed and charismatic on “No Easy Way Out,” it’s a crime she isn’t pushed to the fore more often. Then again, the back end of The Duke & The King drops off into a sluggish groove that negates much of the first half’s ass-wagging swagger. But even when they’re smiling sweetly and rubbing sleep from their eyes, Felice and crew know how to come on larger than life.