Review: King Khan and the Shrines – “Idle No More”

King Khan’s first new full album in six years with the Shrines (though, they also put out an EP in between) is called Idle No More, and it could not be more perfect of a title. It’s self-referential not only for the band’s extended hiatus, but reflects the band’s own penchant for wearing its influences and sources on their sleeves as prophets of high-octane, few-frills rock n’ roll. While it’s difficult to eschew that absurd tendency to recall other bands in trying to define how a given song sounds like X (along the lines of something stupid like, “It’s the Rascals showing up, covered in sweat after a marathon of drugs and playing a set with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins down in Muscle Shoals!”), it becomes difficult when the Shrines are so obvious in where they cull their tunes. Any band that plays with less self-assured confidence would come off as hacky, self-important, self-appointed saviors of rock and roll. The difference is: King Khan and the Shrines just may be those saviors of rock and roll by their prowess first, their historical acumen second.

After the Jump: King Khan and the Shrines kick it old school, as they are wont to do

Album opener “Born to Die” is a prototypical King Khan track, in that it’s exciting — full of swirly, distorted psych-rock guitars and — in a real surprise by the track’s end — some wonderfully full violins that act as King Khan’s version of the wall of sound (as if he needed one). It’s a punk-ish psych tune that plays well into King Khan’s wheelhouse of terrific rock and roll fusion. When the horns kick in, along with the aforementioned violin parts, we’re treated to a sampler of what the Shrines are able to offer as a group. But for anyone who’s cut their teeth on What Is?!, they know that the strengths of King Khan and the Shrines lie in simplicity, and that’s where the terrific “Bite My Tongue” follows up, a fantastically raved-up R&B tune that strips the frills away for the band to just be as quick and vulgar as they want to be (the chorus begins “And when the shit hits the fan”). Skip on over to “Luckiest Man,” for what may be the Shrines at their most stripped down and lo-fi attempt at Wilson Pickett-style soul (and, dare I say it, the band outshines their leader by the time the instrumental break comes in).

There’s a hint of the Tremoloes’ version of “Here Comes My Baby” in the bells-and-guitar intro to “Better Luck Next Time,” which is a fantastic dancing tune, and simultaneously, the band’s most mellow moment in the album, despite the cajun-y gloom of “Darkness,” which shows off the compositional genius of King Khan — the song simmers to hint that a a grand explosion full of horns, guitar, violins, piano, and more. But “Darkness” never amounts to more than it’s sensational teasing that works in a subtle showcase of what the Shrines can do with the restraint of a slower tempo. King Khan still rules supreme, naturally, behind his intentionally novice delivery of the verses, as if to say that the supreme genius truly does lie in his band — that he smartly assembled, of course, to reinterpret the forgotten classics like Cliff Noble’s “The Horse,” as he does on “Luckiest Man.”

But nothing comes close to ‘current’ in King Khan’s playbook, as much as “So Wild” does, with a horn part that seems as fresh and yet out-of-place as anything out of the recently released Mountain Goats record, Transcendental Youth, that actually work to similar effect — it’s familiar sounding, yet not; embraces and boosts the sound around it, yet sounds ever-so-slightly foreign. Consider it a new phase of King Khan’s evolution to work classic elements of rock into a new product, that’s just as disposable as ever individually, but contributing the greater mosaic of Idle No More. 

Grade: A-: Delightfully familiar in so many ways, and certainly a sequel to the outstanding What Is?!Idle No More works by building on it’s influences, rather than relying on them in the way that the aforementioned album did. While some of King Khan’s pieces borrow some elements with a straight face, plain as day, the reality is that nobody does more with the tunes he does take from. King Khan and the Shrines aim to be everybody’s rock and roll — soulful when they need to be, psychedelic when they feel like it, rock and roll because they have no other option. Idle No More  is a testament to a band that fires on all cylinders at all times, and sure, the live show is far superior to what the records have to offer. But as someone who’s experienced the supreme genius of King Khan and the Shrines in a live atmosphere, I can at least attest to the strength of the tunes as being the product of two parts passion for the genres played here, and the other ninety-eight percent being the sheer desire to out-perform, out-rock, out-soul, out-whatever any other band that you may be thinking of when you hear an allusion to, say, the Rascals, or the Count Five, or whatever. The allusions don’t matter — they’re extra fun to the educated in the school of hard rocks — so much as the urgency does, which the Shrines still deliver in spades. In fact, for a man-and-band so well-known for their willingness to go wild, there may be no other album released since the last King Khan album as focused on paying tribute to what makes rock and roll rock as Idle No More. It’s flawed, sure; but it’s better that way.

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