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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 62.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Vinyl Cave: What Is?! by King Khan & the Shrines

A couple summers ago saw the release of The Supreme Genius of King Khan and the Shrines, the first full-length disc to emerge stateside by the German-based band. That album collected some of the best examples of the group's high energy garage rock/soul revue hybrid, and Vice Records must have been listening to my plea for more King Khan material; the label followed up in 2009 with an American release of the band's most recent album, 2007's What Is?!.

King Khan and the Shrines have been around since 1999, when their Montreal-born leader defected from a tour with one of his earlier bands to remain in Germany. There, the Shrines were formed with like-minded players from around the world, including former Curtis Mayfield percussionist Ron Streeter. Since then they've built a following as international as their lineup, due to their legendarily raucous live shows, led by Khan's over the top persona and (usually scantily-clad) antics, even despite that many of their records are not readily available outside Europe.

Vice's releases have helped rectify that situation over the past couple years, though the somewhat backwards nature of releasing a comp followed by an actual album has produced the inevitable result that anyone who bought Supreme Genius already has more than a third of the tracks on What Is?!. Also complicating matters a bit for potential vinyl buyers is that the album is right around 50 minutes, the no-man's land between fitting on one LP and two without a loss in sound quality. As on the compilation, Vice has gone the two-disc route, leading to a couple sides with only three songs on them. Considering the vintage sonic quality the group is going for, one LP might have been ok in this case; at least the label is still offering the album for about the same price as most single discs go for these days.

Those caveats aside: What Is?! is great, and it's good to hear the songs from the compilation in the manner originally intended. The album opens with an unstoppable quartet of tracks previously recycled on Supreme Genius: "Outta Harm's Way," "I Wanna Be a Girl," "Welfare Bread" and "Land of the Freak." It's a testament to the overall quality of the album that the party doesn't decline too much from there, and the band even expands beyond their garage/soul sound a bit on tracks like the Velvet Underground-esque droner "The Ballad of Lady Godiva."

While it hasn't found a U.S. release, the Shrines' 2002 disc on Switzerland's Voodoo Rhythm label, Three Hairs and You're Mine, apparently found a U.S. distributor as an import and has been a bit easier to find on vinyl recently. Hearing this early album back to back with What Is?! shows that Khan's songwriting has taken a big step forward while still maintaining its absolutely rockin' nature. Also still missing in action domestically and very hard to get (at least on vinyl) are a couple early 10-inches and the full-length Mr. Supernatural.

Even bigger news: While no all-new albums have been forthcoming since What Is?!, the group has toured the U.S. the past two years. King Khan and the Shrines will make a much hoped-for Madison stop on at the Annex on Tuesday, October 5. It's going to be great to get the chance to see them right here in town. (Vice, 2009)

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