In one of the most extreme cases of public relations hyperbole in recent history, mainstream press on both sides of the Atlantic would have you believe that Kings of Leon are the next great saviors of rock ‘n’ roll. One publication boasts that the band’s Youth and Young Manhood is “one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years”; while another tells me that the band will make my world a better place in 2003. I’m sure it’s already obvious from my tone that neither of those claims are even remotely close to the truth, but rather than launch into some redundant diatribe, let’s just put Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back CD in the player, skip ahead to track three, and listen along.
One of the things that has gotten Kings of Leon’s admirers so worked up is the way they’ve supposedly reinvigorated the Southern Rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet for a new generation, even prompting some critics to go so far as calling them the “Southern Strokes”. But after several listens to Youth and Young Manhood, there’s only one resounding conclusion—the only thing Southern about this band is their geographical origin. Unless, of course, you count the weak attempt at an Allman Brothers-style guitar line in “Joe’s Head”, but even that’s entirely devoid of the soulful complexity that made the Allmans’ melodies so memorable. In all honesty, the “Southern Strokes” comparison is probably the most apt, at least if it’s taken at face value: a band from Tennessee that sounds like the Strokes minus the chic New York fashion sense.
But even that’s a stretch—the Strokes, even if they are such gifted recyclers that it wouldn’t be at all inappropriate to put the green insignia on their next album’s cover, can at least write a damn catchy song. Kings of Leon, on the other hand, imbues its performances with an admirable jolt of energy, but the songs are so generic that the only thing left at the record’s conclusion is the feeling of how hollow and insubstantial the whole thing is. There are a couple of exceptions in the record’s first half—“Trani” (which is really nothing more than a slowed-down “Sweet Jane” with Mick Jagger’s “Far Away Eyes” vocal thrown over the top) and the genuine pop single “California Waiting”—but the rest is virtually unmemorable, unless the Nirvana-with-no-soul rave-up “Molly’s Chambers” or the fact that they can play a waltz (“Dusty”) can be considered return-worthy traits.
Besides the band’s woeful attempt to claim some sort of rock royalty through their moniker, they also try to align themselves with yesterday’s classics by invoking some of rock’s most venerable clichés. In two rare instances where Caleb Followill’s mushmouthed vocals are intelligible, he’s either extolling the virtues of life on the road (“Happy Alone”) or escaping his small-town roots on the wings of rock ‘n’ roll on the hidden track (a tired-ass concept in and of itself) “Talihina Sky”. It might not be so annoying if there was a shred of irony to their dumpster diving, but (at least on record) Kings of Leon take themselves a little too seriously for a band hawking mere dollar-store goods.
Yet maybe I’ve got it all wrong; after all, the band has followed the formula for “it-band” success to a tee. Their first release was an EP (four of those five tracks are also included on Youth and Young Manhood), which was proclaimed as genius by the right magazines, which in turn created massive anticipation for their full-length (released in the UK a full six weeks earlier than in the US); hell, they even get bonus points for having siblings (real or contrived) in the band. Even so, there’s something that still sits so horribly wrong with how formulaic these “success stories” have truly become that I can’t justify letting these guys have their 15 minutes and be done with it. (So much for skipping the diatribe, right?)
So I suppose it goes without saying that Youth and Young Manhood is most definitely not one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years; it wouldn’t even earn that title if the timeframe were whittled down to the last 10 days. As for me, I’m going to camp out at my mailbox until the deluxe reissue of the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East arrives so I can cleanse the palate with some Southern Rock that deserves its proper noun status.