Kings of Leon: Only by the Night

A return to their Southern Strokes roots with a banal serving of typically unemotional, formulaic stadium rock for hipsters who could care less.

Kings of Leon

Only by the Night

Contributors: Angelo Petraglia
Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2008-09-23
UK Release Date: 2008-09-22
"We try to be as real as we possibly can, because you can only put on a charade for so long before you start acting a double-charade. Then you start getting busted."

-- Nathan Followill, drummer

"I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better."

-- Sarah "Lipstick on a Pitbull" Palin, a vocal supporter of abstinence-only sex education

The music business is a land of phonies and charlatans. No one in or around it has any illusions to the contrary. These fakes come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and intensities. The brothers and cousin Followill are now in the bottom rung of the pecking order, no different from all the other Limp Bizkit and Avril Lavigne commodities that attempt to pass off the most expensive gear and shallow, materialistic existences as creative substance, except for the fact the Kings of Leon sincerely believe they are real artists. They exist on and believe in their own hype, an intangible juggernaut stunningly and consistently supported by the UK and Australian media while soundly denounced by the North American bastion of indie taste Pitchfork, now for the fourth time in as many full-lengths with their lowest ever rating. Yet the many devoted street teams and pocketed critics always seem to drown out the few authorities willing to put the effort in to point out how average they truly are. Lucky for us, Only by the Night is the CD that will turn the tide on that cesspool.

With the highly anticipated fourth Kings of Leon album, this quartet of Tennessee good old boys have finally created the album they were always destined to make. Youth and Young Manhood (2003) launched their major label buzz factory with a posture heavy mix of the Strokes and stolen Southern rock aesthetics. Shortly thereafter, three of the four Followill boys lost their virginity. However, despite earning the manly man merit badges they started making music for in the first place on the back of so many generous comparisons, they never truly embraced the Southern Strokes tag that hounded their early work. Over the next two albums, they did their best to get away from it by stretching their meager talents and pussy driven ambitions over sounds borrowed from U2, with whom they had also toured. With Only by the Night and whisperings of "the night time is the right time" dancing in their heads, the Kings of Leon have finally wholeheartedly embraced their inner Strokes and outer U2 (minus the relevant politics) and channeled the ensuing derivative drivel directly through the most radio friendly Nickelback form.

Now, they have only ever had three songs on every album. They write self-aggrandizing ditties about encounters with groupies, boastful yarns about how real they are, and vaguely worded nonsensical ramblings punctuated by choruses picked out of a rhyming dictionary. The lead single was originally supposed to be "Crawl". That track falls squarely in the latter category since some of the words have mildly political connotations bordering on Toby Keith style über patriotism, but they stop a few blocks short of actually saying anything due to their jumbled execution. Perhaps sensing the half-baked nature of the meaningless tune, they decided the nod would instead go to the deeply emotional "Sex on Fire", a predictable tale of tail conquered.

From the band that brought you the repetitious penis ode "Pistol of Fire" in 2004 comes the equally obvious panty tosser "Sex on Fire". The track begins on an alternating two-note rhythm guitar riff that never ventures out of its safety zone. It's given the illusion of substance by a few infrequent bars of the very same staccato stabs re-popularized by the Strokes at the turn of the millennium and traced back to the likes of Television. The lyrics (which include the limerick like chorus "You, your sex is on fire / And so were the words to transpire") are consistently juvenile, insincere, plain, and occasionally imbecilic. Caleb explained the chorus of the newest "Fire" song in a promotional YouTube home video where he said, "you know, the lyric can be taken any way and there'll be people that say it's corny or whatever, but, you know, if you've ever had really good sex, I don't think it's corny." Maybe not corny, per se, but it is undeniably trite, petty, cliché, and counterintuitive to their image as serious musicians. What's more, there are only two ways it can be taken and one of them is the clap. They'd have you believe they're the next U2 poised to change the world with the power of their craft, but they're really more like the Darkness moved to Tennessee and started letting their label cut their hair and dress them. Cock rock is still cock rock no matter how many hipsters are in the crowd.

The formula "Sex on Fire" employs is ripped straight out of the Nickelback dime a dozen hit playbook, running the textbook pattern verse-half chorus-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus straight to number one in the UK charts. There's no intro or outro to speak of and the band's chemistry devoid playing stays at the same monotonous level throughout the entirety of its three-and-a-half-minute length, except for a slight upsurge and lame wad synth chime addition for the chorus. Every verse ends with Caleb repeating the last word for dramatic effect, but there's nothing remotely poignant about "watching", "talking", "driving", "dying", "taste it", and "greatest" in this context. The last two words don't even rhyme and the first four were all the same and by the numbers, obvious enough to cats and select monkeys as inferior poetry even in contrast to the Kings' more honest colleagues KISS and Mötley Crüe. At least those guys came out and said they just want chicks. The video for "Sex on Fire" doesn't even have a girl in it. It's got a dude eating chicken then ripping pages out of the Bible, another taking a shower in a warehouse, a bunch of winter gloves on sticks, and three guys touching Caleb until he pukes black dust in between shots of the band lip-synching. It's as pointless as it is hollow.

Speaking of unoriginal song writing, "Use Somebody" is another run-of-the-mill mainstream indie amalgam that subtly rips off a "Where the Streets Have No Name" lick for its supporting guitar line while Caleb squeaks about wanting to bone a random face in the crowd. The song is arranged almost identically to "Sex on Fire" except there is more layering and effort instrumentally, meaning they may have spent more than an afternoon writing this one, plus there's a little extremely tame soloing around the end. It will probably be the next single. Further down the tracklisting, "I Want You" says the exact same thing over a never-ending post-grunge bassline rewritten from Because of the Times throwaway "On Call" and spiced with a lazy cowbell. Ho, hum, another day at the office.

Caleb's hackneyed song writing talents further expose themselves in "Be Somebody" as he rattles off some drivel about loosening a tie and gyrating in your general direction over a textbook tribal drum track copied out of a catalogue and another Edge riff. Like "Sex on Fire", this song repeats the last line twice in the first verse, and then (this being where Caleb gets crazy experimental) he repeats the exact same line in the second verse twice again. No matter how many times you say, "I shake your way," it's still a ridiculous image. The Ministry of Silly Walks sketch immediately springs to mind.

Throughout the record, the lyrics drift from brainless to worthless, and often in the same verse. "Snow is crackling cold / She took my heart, I think she took my soul / With the moon I run / Far from the carnage of the fiery sun" from "Closer" will not grant them the immortality their videos assume. The motivation here is they want to get laid, and that shines through their every move. They think the best chance they have to continue getting laid is to pretend they have half of the vision and integrity of U2 while still appealing to the indie crowd, since they dig the younger, trendier chicks. Hence, "17" is about trying to impregnate a 17-year-old girl, and since the Republican overlords wholly endorse abstinence-only sex "education" across America, it's an achievable goal. I mean, if an ultraconservative governor of Alaska and vice-presidential nominee can't teach her underage daughter to avoid the baby bullet with the help of abstinence-only programs, what chance does anyone else in the world have against a touring rock band?

Now, even though Caleb is one of the worst singers and lyricists this side of Paris Hilton and Ashlee Simpson, it's not that the Kings of Leon are completely untalented musicians. Their live-off-the-floor studio recordings have always brought to the table something intangibly vibrant (or throbbing, if you will) over their first three albums, despite Caleb's voice constantly defaulting to piercing shrieks as on the singles "Charmer" and "Trani" as his only means of conveying "real" human emotion. They can play as good as Fall Out Boy or Nickelback. However, compared only to their own catalogue, the instrumentals on this album sound hollow and feebly constructed like a house of pornographic playing cards, typical for any carbon copy Chad Krueger project. Caleb mostly manages to keep his obtuse shrilling in check, instead using a falsetto lilt to highlight random words and the chorus in every single song. With Ethan Johns out of the picture, the production is thin at best, using the same reverb on the vocals as everything else all the time while the drums sound plastic.

Where surprises could be found with each previous release to give even casual fans something to appreciate, Only by the Night delivers an even serving of Ritalin coma stadium rock destined to raise their prime age demographic. I can't see this getting them invited to a UN meeting any time soon, but the Hard Rock Café will surely save them a table.


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Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

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