Kings of Leon hits the mark then gets greedy.
Geography has an interesting place in popular music. It is, naturally, a factor in any sound musicians make. It is integral to the formation of sounds whether or not it is acknowledged. Many will do all they can to escape their geography, only to use it as a form of authentication as they finally settle up in New York or LA. Some will adopt new space as their own. It is interesting that it continues to have a spot in an increasingly global music scene. Are we merely paying it lip service anymore? Are there sounds that do not make it to certain parts, or sounds so unique to certain areas? Do musicians, and their more judgmental critical counterparts, invoke geography as easy shorthand despite its waning significance? Such is the initial line of questioning listening to the neo-Southern-rock of Kings of Leon's new album Because of the Times.
Southern rock is sort of a redundant genre and yet no one seems unclear on what it represents. Is not all of rock 'n' roll music born of the American South? And yet the stomping swagger and sweaty grit of some supersonic country are what specifically come to mind. For fans of Kings of Leon there is no worry that the boys have abandoned this approach. Yet this album sees them play a number of rewarding twists on that template.
The first track "Knocked Up" fades in and out like a glimpse of some ongoing narrative. The bass and drums shuffle along while the guitar scrapes out angular Edge-isms (U2). The vocal and lyrics are a lonesome combination of resignation and resolve. "I'm gonna be her lover" sounds as bleak and foreboding as the instrumental accompaniment. It is an introverted way to open the album. It's even a little bit scary, but with a hint of genuine and tenacious love buried somewhere within. It is really one of the finest points of the new album and its success is indicative of the finer things to be found here. It is expertly positioned economy of sound and vision. In which it is sparse in both respects and yet richly compelling. Despite a litany of cliché imagery and seven minutes of very subtle variation "Knocked Up" is fascinating. There is a gripping, cinematic quality to this story you've probably heard before. There is a beauty to the stubbornly blunt approach to complex issues.
While a meditative and sprawling opener may be a strange choice, Kings of Leon up the intensity with the ferocious "Charmer", a scathing track borrowing heavily from the Pixies school of paranoid shriek. Caleb Fallowill even tears out his best Frank Black yelp so often that even listening starts to hurt. As is so often the case with imitation the full-halt, bass-bridge sounds almost more Pixies than the Pixies ever did.
And in these songs there is already an indication of why this new album is so interesting. The stomp and swagger are still the basis but now they are cut with some worried punk awareness. The result, when it works, is a frail undercut to self-assurance. It would be easy enough to abandon or deny the pregnancy of "Knocked Up" (a guitar-driven "you say you got my baby an' I know it ain't true") and yet here they opt for stark vulnerability. Its something like Joy Division, lost in the American South, hoping to get by as a bar band. And yet, thankfully, the record does not seem to acknowledge its peculiarities but pummel and slash forth.
The better two-thirds of the album rocks on in this style. That is not to say that it becomes boring as there is vast room for variety where southern grunge and echo-y post-punk intersect. "On Call" is mid-tempo sweetness which picks up a tasteful guitar annotation to its melody. "McFearless" grits its teeth through fuzz-bass and a reminder of how the wah pedal, while oft associated with slinky funk, can sound absolutely brutal. Although he is almost invariably mixed into the fray, Caleb Fallowill's vocals display competent range and a penchant for bright melodies. At his best, the chorus of "Black Thumbnail", he sounds like another growling instrument.
"My Party" is the energetic high point of the album. After a somewhat clumsy guitar intro Jared and Nathan Fallowill (bass and drums respectively) pop and lock-down with blistering funkiness. The seconds of pre-chorus are enough to make all the other neo-new-wave posers turn green. Add the crushing, angular rhythm guitar and finally a band figured out how to cop that noise in a style which is fresh and pays more tribute than it rips off. When the full band returns to the exuberant chorus the guitar crackles along and you will dance. Have mercy how you will shake!
Following that magnesium burn a cool down is all but necessary. The Kings follow suit ably and sweetly. "True Love Way" and "Ragoo" allow for a more vocal driven approach. Caleb can really croon on these. There are shades of Eddie Vedder in his delivery but comes off far less annoying. He is a more tactful Vedder, the Vedder of "Red". "Ragoo" has such a lithe, delayed guitar riff that its heavy handed chorus is totally forgivable. Vocals and other guitar play around this initial figure for the verses and the barely audible keys on the fade-out are a pretty touch, a brush with beauty.
And all of a sudden the energy seems to go all out of the album. It’s a tough disappointment after being right along for what has been a very tight ride. From "Fans" on the whole band deflates. Everything gets repetitive and uninspired. "Trunk" sounds promising at first with a little funk a la "Riders on the Storm" but it quickly loses this soul facsimile. Nothing has been genius, but they got by on the simplicity of their energy for so long and without that, well there ain't much. What is really unfortunate is that the padding comes together all at once. Had some of these less invigorated tunes been parsed out across the album, the overall effect would still be outstanding. As it is there's the outstanding album and its sluggish coda. Rather than expanding the whole, this seems like obvious filler, thrown together after the fact. It would have been so easy to trick me into thinking this thing was about flawless. Even the flaccid nonsense of "Camaro" could pass if following "My Party".
So it's tough to call this one. If it were only the first eight tracks this would probably be the best album I've heard in 2007. So, Kings of Leon have created some very excellent rock music. It moves around enough in eight songs to defy easy category. Then again Kings of Leon are guilty of one of the cardinal sins of rock; filler for filler's sake. And this has to diminish some of what they accomplished. So much of the fun of the sound was making the most out of simple, economic rocking. And then, in the grand scheme, they lose their sense of economy to attain the standard album length. Frankly I'd be pleased as punch with an eight-song Because of the Times. The Because of the Times EP. Because of the Times, with stupid bonus tracks. That's how I want to remember this album.