Kings Of Leon have been dubbed the 'Southern Strokes' in some circles, and this is an unusually apt designation during a time when facile comparisons and specious analogies run rampant in the critical community.
The reason that this is such an appropriate moniker stems from the fact that Kings Of Leon are very much a product of the retro guitar-rock movement that's been sweeping the airwaves as of late, albeit with an injection of Southern flavor that serves to differentiate the band from many of their faceless contemporaries.
The band consists of the Followill clan, brothers Nathan, Matthew and Caleb. Having lived a life of repression under their Evangelist father, the trio were set free upon their parents' divorce and embraced this emancipation by indulging in the rock and roll lifestyle that had been denied them during their youth.
There's been some cynical speculation that Kings Of Leon are a manufactured band, a theory that gains some credence from the fact that their producer, Angelo Petraglia, co-writes their material with them, but these suspicions aren't really merited; it's apparent that the brothers are at the very least competent in both the songwriting and instrumental departments, merely receiving a modicum of guidance from the studio so as to better harness their precocious talent and youthful energy.
Anyone who's witnessed the endless procession of me-too guitar-rock acts parade across the airwaves has realized that the majority of these trend-hoppers are inherently limited rock groups; there have been exceptions, like The White Stripes, but the bulk of these bands operate in an innately narrow context, with little room to grow, evolve or experiment.
Unfortunately, Kings Of Leon conform to this description, working within the confines of a tight, constricting arena that cuts them off from any true progression or diversity. The extent of the versatility exhibited on this album consists of occasionally alternating a rocker with a ballad, while the scope is confined to the bare fundamentals of retro garage-rock, albeit accented with a Southern tinge.
The fact of the matter, however, is that it's clear that Kings Of Leon weren't yet ready for anything that transcended the boundaries of rudimentary guitar rock. The Followills are decent composers, capable of conjuring some catchy melodies and solid hooks, but much like The Strokes they only have just enough talent to animate their debut album and craft a final product that's truly worthwhile.
Neither distinctive when it comes to style nor substance, Kings Of Leon remain entertaining thanks to the fact that, even if their album is artistically bankrupt it's still axiomatically enjoyable for altogether different reasons. The band rock quite convincingly, and while their melodies may sound familiar they're hardly plagiarized (with a few exceptions, like lifting parts of Blondie's Heart Of Glass for the intro to California Waiting), and the group is consistently catchy enough to sustain an entire album with their hooks, which may not be revolutionary but can still prove irresistible at their best.
The band are at their best when they rock, as tunes like the ponderous Dusty fail to draw attention to themselves, a description that also applies to Trani which is inadvisably the longest number on the album. The nadir of the album, however, is the hidden track, not due to any musical deficiencies of its own but rather to the fact that hidden tracks are anathema to me in general; whereas they might make a pleasant surprise on one's first exposure to them, any time one wants to hear them again they have to endure minutes of superfluous silence.
While there are no timeless classics on the album, Wasted Time, Spiral Staircase, Molly's Chambers and Holy Roller Novocaine are all quite entertaining riff rockers that compare favorably with the output of most other leading guitar-rock outfits. They're not especially memorable, but they're suitably diverting and will consistently make for an enjoyable listening experience.
Thus Youth & Young Manhood is a solid affair that, even with its Southern stylings, fails to stand out from the crowd of similar retro garage-rockers, but nevertheless can still be counted amongst the best of them. While this genre offers limited products, it can still provide some basic rock and roll excitement, and in this regard Youth & Young Manhood certainly delivers.
Adhering to the tried and true retro guitar-rock formula imposes certain inherent constraints and limitations upon a rock album; in the case of Kings Of Leon's sophomore effort, Aha Shake Heartbreak, this doesn't prevent the band from making progress as a rock band but rather dictates the departments in which the group is able to evolve as an ensemble.
Ergo Aha Shake Heartbreak isn't a genre-bending opus or an ambitious concept album; instead, it's merely a refinement of the band's debut, and ultimately a more mature and consistent offering than Youth & Young Manhood.
There's nothing radically new or different about Aha Shake Heartbreak; in most respects it's a retread of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the group have at least made a modicum of progress as songwriters, and despite the conservative nature of the album it isn't wholly without its pretensions.
The group appear to fancy themselves witty lyricists, but the extent of their lyrical prowess are coruscations like, 'I hate her face/But I love the company.' While this dubious facility for wordplay is preferable to the working-class irreverent 'poetry' of rock outfits like The Arctic Monkeys, it can still hardly be regarded as a major asset, and in the long run one will simply tune out the lyrics in much the same way as one does for any band in the retro guitar-rock movement.
More intriguing, however, is the fact that Kings Of Leon are investing more effort into the structural department of their songs. As I'd stated, Aha Shake Heartbreak seldom breaks new ground over Youth & Young Manhood, but this doesn't signify that the album is bereft of attempted artistic flourishes. While this rarely results in more than, for example, the false ending and multipart structure of the opener Slow Night, So Long, it's still refreshing to watch the band endeavor to progress on an artistic level; doubtless these aspirations will never amount to anything meaningful, but after the defiant simplicity of their debut at least a small dose of creative ambition is welcome.
As I'd alluded to before, however, the main regard in which Aha Shake Heartbreak has the edge on Youth & Young Manhood is in the consistency department. Where Kings of Leon's debut was rather distressingly erratic, their sophomore effort is virtually devoid of filler. There are still no real classics, as the band, even at their best, are a far cry from virtuoso songwriters, but the album still offers a considerably entertaining set, with standouts like the rockers King Of The Rodeo and The Bucket (the latter of which was the CD's first single).
The album's a bit more mellow than its predecessor, which can somewhat dilute the excitement of the listening experience, but that's a small sacrifice for a more consistent listen. The band have definitely grown as songwriters, demonstrating a superior knack for conjuring pop hooks and catchy melodies.
There may not be anything on Aha Shake Heartbreak that reaches the level of blistering rockers like Holy Roller Novacaine, but the band have made progress in other areas; whereas on Youth & Young Manhood the album would invariably go awry anytime the band experimented with something outside their riff-rocker comfort zone, on their second outing tracks like the more subdued Day Old Blues have just as much to offer as the group's signature rockers.
Ultimately, while I'd say that Youth & Young Manhood and Aha Shake Heartbreak are on a very similar level, I'd select the latter as the superior product. Kings Of Leon definitely demonstrate that they've made at least some strides since their last outing, and while this progress is mild at best it still makes for a more satisfying listening experience.
While it's easy to blame the band's innate inadequacies on the fundamental limitations of the genre, it's clear that even in a broader forum Kings Of Leon can never be a 'great' rock outfit. None of the bandmembers are unusually gifted musicians, and their songwriting never transcends the level of solid. Furthermore, Caleb Followill's vocals can be profoundly grating until the listener is acclimated to his exaggerated brand of singing (complete with a Southern drawl that's certainly an acquired taste). Despite these handicaps, however, Kings Of Leon are still an entertaining group, providing a superficial yet axiomatically enjoyable listening experience.
For most retro guitar-rock acts stagnation is an inevitability; even if a group can manage to consistently generate stellar riffs, if they remain rooted in the same static paradigm they'll invariably become interchangeable without a new or different context to operate in. Thus even if a band's supply of catchy riffs and irresistible hooks is never exhausted, as long as the group proceed in the same basic style this inertia will become tantamount to total creative bankruptcy, and an array of memorable melodies will become stillborn, coming across as flaccid and impotent even despite their considerable merits.
Fortunately Kings Of Leon manage to evade this fate, as on their third outing they finally extricate themselves from the generic garage-rock rut they'd occupied on their first two efforts. Evidently harboring more pretensions than was initially apparent, the band heavily alter their sound, adopting a style more akin to alternative rock than Strokes-like guitar-rock shenanigans.
This style actually quite suits the Followill clan, casting their work in a different light that illuminates certain nuances that were imperceptible during the band's guitar-rock phase. The resulting product is a work that's certainly darker than the group's earlier output, but also more ambitious, hence tracks like the seven-minute-plus opener Knocked Up which simply flies by despite its prolonged length and, between its moody passages and hard rock crescendos, can be counted amongst the group's best work.
This genre-shift is quite refreshing, so much so that one could make the mistake of thinking that it was accompanied by a similar growth as songwriters. The fact of the matter, however, is that the caliber of the songwriting remains unchanged; this isn't a negative, as Kings Of Leon have consistently managed to make their content quite compelling since their formation, but it also means that the band haven't so much progressed as simply changed directions, with a stylistic shift alone accounting for the disparities between Because Of The Times and their previous work.
This also signifies that the band's evasion of the lurking horror of stagnation didn't enable them to offer a better product, merely one on par with their first two outings. Some would disagree with this assessment, as many inherently regard the alternative rock genre, along with the pervasive darkness that all too often accompanies it, as innately superior, and more artistically relevant, than anything associated with the retro garage-rock phenomenon. While Because Of The Times may superficially sound more serious than the previous entries in the group's discography, however, there are few indications of any meaningful progression of either an artistic or qualitative nature between the album and its predecessors, as merely superimposing a layer of darkness over one's music doesn't transfigure the material into a work of depth and insight, thus making this supposed growth illusory at best.
Thus apart from a genre-shift little has changed since the inception of the Kings Of Leon; the band still don't offer works of profundity, poignancy or brilliant songwriting, merely collections of solid, entertaining tunes that offer fun if limited diversions. It's not as if every group needs to be deep and hyper-ambitious, and thus there's hardly anything wrong with the band's innately superficial character, particularly when they offer such solid numbers as On Call, McFearless and My Party.
There are also some lesser moments on the album; Charmer is a transparent Pixies knockoff, and while that's never something that I object to in this particular case Kings Of Leon succumb to the age-old mistake of favoring the Pixies' dissonant side over their melodic side, leading to a number that completely misses the point of Black Francis's legendary indie outfit.
By and large, however, Because Of The Times offers a consistent set of solid alt-rock songs that, while vastly different from their previous albums, still isn't quite as far removed from their past as one would initially surmise. Ultimately it's simply another solid if unremarkable album from a solid if unremarkable group, one that can be thoroughly enjoyed but never transcends the boundaries of simple, casual and shallow recreational listening.
It's doubtful that an album like Only By The Night would ever have been made were it not for the monumental success that Kings Of Leon have enjoyed in the wake of Because Of The Times, their most lucrative CD yet. This is due to the fact that commercial success is quite liberating for any rock group, as few bands are willing to take many risks if they're experiencing tepid sales. A group experiencing prosperous times will not only be more confident in their own abilities, but furthermore will have a safety-net in place that can protect them if their ambitions fail to secure them a greater stake in the music market.
It's evident right from the start that Only By The Night is by far Kings Of Leon's most ambitious venture to date. The album couldn't be further removed from the style of Youth & Young Manhood; the band's influences have historically always been rather transparent, and whereas their debut was clearly a Strokes/Lynyrd Skynyrd hybrid, Only By The Night is clearly reminiscent of the likes of U2, unmistakably resembling of the sound of Bono and company.
This is a rather problematic equation; U2 are profoundly ambitious, but more often than not they're entitled to their pretensions because they truly have something relevant to say. Kings Of Leon have never had anything of much meaning to say, be it on a social or artistic level. Thus what feels epic and sweeping from the Irish quartet comes across as bloated and bombastic coming from Kings Of Leon, and while they adroitly mimic certain aspects of U2's sound they fail to capture the spirit and sheer emotion inherent to Bono's better work.
Quite frankly the Followills' have never engaged me on an emotional level, which is certainly a critical flaw when the band ape a group whose specialty is being emotionally resonant and moving. Even if one regards U2's music as being preachy, sanctimonious and blatantly polemical, the group can still penetrate this membrane of apathy and ennui through the sheer power of Bono's soaring vocals and the band's potent melodies. Kings Of Leon have no such tools at their disposal, and the result is a collection predominantly composed of sterile offerings that lack everything that makes U2 such a compelling ensemble.
Fortunately Only By The Night is still far from bereft of merit; while Kings Of Leon never match U2's power, they're not incapable of producing some solid material in the band's style. Thus the album is partially salvaged by its first few numbers, which boast sufficiently strong melodies to counteract their forced, pompous nature.
Thus Closer is suitably moody and engrossing, Crawl rocks quite convincingly without resorting to heavy metal primitivism and the anthemic Sex On Fire is rousing though not, despite its title, arousing.
Elsewhere Use Somebody actually manages to muster some genuine emotional force (though it's still colossally far removed from the cathartic beauty of U2), while Manhattan is most definitely another highlight.
Nevertheless Kings Of Leon simply don't have the talent required to pull off as ambitious a project as Only By The Night, lacking the necessary songwriting gifts and musical sincerity to fashion a product that could achieve the album's lofty goals. In the past the group largely succeeded because they eschewed such ambitions in favor of simply producing entertaining if shallow music. Now, however, Kings Of Leon have allowed their commercial success to go to their heads, resulting in a listening experience that, while not devoid of merit, suffers from the weight of its own aspirations. Kings Of Leon have always been a limited group, and these limitations make the realization of such an ambitious work an outright impossibility, with the only consolation being that the band's actual talents haven't atrophied, still intermittently shining through over the course of Only By The Night's relatively short length.
On Come Around Sundown, Kings Of Leon's follow-up to the uber-successful Only By The Night, it feels as if every element conspires to create the perfect environment in which the band can finally deliver their grand artistic statement. From sweeping arrangements to anthemic choruses to Phil Spector-like walls of sound, everything comes together to provide the ideal backdrop for precisely such an ambitious breakthrough.
Unfortunately, just as one starts to anticipate a meaningful statement of this nature, reality intrudes and unceremoniously dispels any such hopes. There is one main reason that Kings Of Leon don't deliver a grand artistic statement on Come Around Sundown, and that is, quite simply, that the band are incapable of making one.
Perhaps to compensate for a lack of substance, everything on Come Around Sundown has to be 'big' and 'loud.' After being endlessly bombarded by the album's forced 'epicness,' one will doubtless long for the humble unpretentiousness of Youth & Young Manhood, a time when Kings Of Leon understood their limitations and abstained from relentless bombast.
The songs' pompous nature is problematic on numerous levels, but chief among them is a certain 'sameness' that invariably takes hold. Even songs like the country rocker Back Down South, which should offer a reprieve from the endless towering arena rock, features the same bloated production that dominates the album, ensuring that there's no escape from Come Around Sundown's deadening uniformity.
Sadly, Kings Of Leon are one of those unfortunate cases in which a band peaks all too early in their lifespan, leaving them to flounder aimlessly in a kind of creative limbo for the remainder of their days. To put it bluntly, much of this can simply be attributed to the band's dearth of talent. Kings Of Leon had enough talent to function as a passable garage-rock outfit, but they also had enough intelligence to recognize that they were on the verge of stagnation, and that should they let inertia run its course their fifteen minutes of fame would be over.
This may sound harsh, but such an ignominious descent into obscurity may have been the band's most graceful option. Instead, Kings Of Leon attempted to elude this fate by 'evolving,' but this has merely exacerbated the situation (from an artistic perspective, albeit not a commercial one). The Followill clan are simply not equipped to operate on a higher level. The fact that they can pen a decent riff-rocker doesn't qualify them for artistic supremacy, and their particular brand of arena-rock is far too one-note and self-important to justify their desperate metamorphosis.
As is invariably the case, what matters most is the quality of a band's songwriting, and in this department Kings Of Leon fail miserably. Come Around Sundown suffers from a severe paucity of memorable melodies. Most tracks are bland, dull and interchangeable, with generic riffs, uninspired refrains and an unforgivable lack of catchy hooks.
It's hard to say if this stems from an inability to perform well in this genre or if the Followills have simply exhausted their supply of strong melodies, but either way Come Around Sundown is a truly monotonous affair. Without distinctive melodies, it's painfully difficult to differentiate between the album's thirteen tracks.
Even the album's highlights are more impressive for the mood they set than any considerable songwriting merits. Thus the opener The End and Pony Up are somewhat more attractive than the rest of the set-list, but this isn't to say that their riffs or vocal melodies are far superior to those of their counterparts.
Ambition is commendable, but some groups are simply not meant to progress beyond a certain point. Kings Of Leon had their niche in southern-flavored guitar-rock, and would have been well served to remain there. In order for a new sound to work, a band has to grow into it. If their style evolves but their songwriting doesn't, a band is condemned to artistic failure, and if they don't recognize this fact then they're truly a lost cause.
And that, sadly, is what I believe Kings Of Leon are: a lost cause. The enormous commercial success of the mediocrity that was Only By The Night has ensured that the band won't return to garage-rock, the one area in which they were competent. They've also made it abundantly clear that they lack the skills for their current undertaking. Thus the Followills will continue this downward spiral into total musical inadequacy, with neither the self-awareness nor necessary criticism to realize that there's something wrong with that.