HandMeDownRecords - 2004 - 37 minutes

Talk about confounding expectations. Few could have expected an album such as this to have emerged from the creators of the over-hyped 'Youth and Young Manhood'. Their debut, an album of driving singles and limited ambition, was competent, if little more than a helpful reminder of that Creedence record that had fallen down the back of the hi-fi.

Of all the recent slew of retro groups, Kings of Leon seemed least interested in moving forward. With a wilfully traditional sound, their concerns seemed far removed from those of their more adventurous contemporaries.

Making a mockery of any notions of the 'difficult second album', 'Aha Shake Heartbreak' is a record worthy of the misplaced praise heaped upon its predecessor. Refined and shorn of all excess flab, only one song here reaches the four-minute mark. What remains is some of the finer rock music to be released this year.

As early as the first track, with the unexpectedly delicate piano outro to 'Slow Night, So Long', are hints that the horizons of this group have significantly broadened. Seemingly not content to continue in the vein of formulaic bar room blues, the songs provided are wonderfully inventive in both structure and delivery. Singer Caleb Followill's lyrics, when decipherable, stick in the mind for their unusual phrasing and the completely unique way in which they are sung.

Highlights are many in an album with few if any poor tracks, but songs like 'Pistol of Fire', 'Milk' and 'Four Kicks' – brimming with energy and vocal tics – defy you to avoid deep south whiskey-soaked clichés.

True, the subject matter remains girls and booze, and this is all about sleaze and swagger, but any music that brings to mind 'Toys in the Attic'- era Aerosmith is welcome refreshment and worthy of encouragement.

The rush to categorise King of Leon has been swift but unsuccessful; phrases like the 'southern Strokes' do little more than help record sales, despite the similarly punchy styles. This is a group that play rock music, plain and simple, and of a quality that should see them in the vanguard of any sub-genre with which they are associated.

Ray Donoghue

Tracklisting: Slow Night, So Long – King of the Rodeo – Taper Jean Girl – Pistol of Fire – Milk – The Bucket – Soft – Razz – Day Old Blues – Four Kicks – Velvet Snow – Rememo – Where Nobody Knows