When done poorly, garage rock is usually still not that bad. The very nature of the genre lends itself to sloppiness and imperfection, and the rawer, the better, in many cases, but without good songwriting, a lot of garage rock records tend to blend together in a big mess of static and power chords. When garage rock is done well, however, it can be the most exciting music on earth. Even the most traditional rock `n’ roll bands can be an explosive affair with the right touches, just look to Black Lips or Rocket From The Crypt for a prime example of stage presence and ass kicking material. Though not yet to either of those bands’ level of notoriety, King Khan is one such artist who makes garage rock transcendent with a combination of flashy, and sometimes barely there, stage getups and truly amazing, I’d even say classic, songwriting.
Though part of the time, Montreal native Khan performs with Mark Sultan as duo King Khan and the BBQ Show, he truly reaches his potential as a showman and songwriter with What Is?!, recorded with his other band, The Shrines. On top of Khan’s manic, raspy vocals and power chords galore, the band’s sound is densely fleshed out with fiery organ licks and a horn section that could have been pulled straight from a Stax session. What Is?! is somewhere between The Stooges and James Brown, with a dash of Love for a psych-folk effect, and Sun Ra for the group’s most truly out there moments.
Opener “(How Can I Keep You) Outta Harm’s Way” has the sound of a long lost garage 45, its triumphant stomp and ultra-catchy riffs the stuff that music geek obsessions are made of. The incredible “Welfare Bread” is smooth and soulful, with some of the fuzz pushed aside in favor of a lovely, summertime groove. “Land Of The Freak” kicks into high gear with all cylinders firing and Khan wailing like the Godfather of Soul himself, and “I See Lights” swirls like a trippy outtake from Forever Changes. Khan even vocally sounds like Arthur Lee, a similarity that carries over into the lush standout “69 Faces of Love.” On “Cosmic Serenade,” the Shrines turn to an exotic, jazzy, and somewhat dissonant sound (here’s where the Sun Ra comes in) to magnificent effect, and closer “The Ballad of Lady Godiva” is a fuzzy, yet endearing dirge, closing the album with a distorted sort of calm.
As many ’60s style throwback garage rock records are released each year, it’s encouraging to know that there are artists like Khan, striving to make it fun again. King Khan and The Shrines have the complete package—a big, bold sound, a charismatic frontman, and a stage presence that could catch any ambivalent hipster in its good time, high energy tractor beam. There may not be anything all that new about what King Khan and the Shrines are doing, but nobody else has recorded a straight-up rock `n’ roll record this good in ages.