King Khan and the Shrines
If there's any doubt in your mind that King Khan's got a smirk on his face throughout the entirety of What Is?!, take a listen to the lyrics of its final track, "The Ballad of Lady Godiva": "The sex was so simple/ I swear I saw God/ On the top of white mountains/ On the top of my rod." Even then, with a breath of relief that sounds more like early hiss-soaked Sebadoh than the gods of rock and soul Khan exhaustively pays tribute to throughout the record, it retains its musty vintage charm and spiky sense of humor.
There's a reason Atlanta upstarts Black Lips cited Montreal's King Khan's other band, the BBQ Show, as recent favorites, and it's not just their shared affinity for Nuggets box sets and Eric Burdon. Both bands are more than just revivalists, but pranksters too, from their tongue-in-cheek lyrics, unpredictable live shows, impenetrable self-mythologizing press, and "live" albums (yeah, ok, you got me). Buying into the act isn't just a question of suspending disbelief and taking their hand for a magic carpet ride; it's being willing to smile after the shock of the hand buzzer.
Thing is, the gritty production of this latest Shrines record might beat Black Lips in the painstaking reproduction department, and underneath that analog hiss is a clever pastiche that hits those nostalgia buttons while sneaking in moments of cacophony and synthesis. "69 Faces of Love" adds strings and brass to cool "Love Potion No. 9"-style rock before a layered and bewildering bridge that's like a middle-school marching band taking on Steve Reich. Elsewhere, Khan plays a bizarro-world James Brown who demands only bum notes from his band on the breakdown of "Land of the Freak", and "In Your Grave", with its bubbling wah-wah over a simmering rhythm section, is another sly nod to the future (or at least the early 1970s).
No need to underline those moments, though, when you've got pitch-perfect 60s pop like "Welfare Bread" and "I See Lights" and horn-laden hard-rock like "(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harms Way". Innovation's just as important here as finding the right second to shout "guitar!" before the solo (check "No Regrets"). The retro shtick almost becomes a spoonful of sugar to make their cross-pollination go down, with the only explicitly adventurous moments being the Eastern-nodding psychedelic globe-boner of "Cosmic Serenade" and the French-sung "Le Fils de Jacques Dutronc", their tribute to a similarly scornful garage rocker and maybe the only hint that this band is Canadian. Rather than making the audience the butt of their prank, What Is?! becomes a joke that anyone can enjoy without necessarily being in on. There's no reason you should take this record more seriously than the King himself, and no reason you can't embrace it: What Is?! is goofy, affecting, nostalgic, and cathartic all at once, at every moment.
-Jason Crock, July 03, 2007