Kings of Leon, Only By The Night (RCA, 2008)
Like the rest of America, we’ve always had a mild curiosity, but overall “meh” attitude towards Kings of Leon. When they first hit in the summer of 2003, with Youth & Young Manhood, they were sporting Allman Brothers locks, their sisters’ jeans, and spiky guitars laced with a Southern twang that pegged them as a hick-version of the Strokes (or, perhaps, if My Morning Jacket had jumped in a time machine and relocated to New York City in 1978). But like a lot of new bands that were sprouting from the underground in the early parts of the Millennium, Kings of Leon seemed like another flash in the pan, with more “rock critics” (‘sup, Jenny Eliscu?) focusing on the Followill boys’ tweed jackets, long locks, and chest tats rather than the fact that, well, besides having chiseled jaws and cool clothes, that their actual songs were sort of ho-hum. Passable. Kinda cool, but not terribly exciting.
Thankfully for Kings of Leon, England usually disagrees with what most of the American music buying public thinks (how else can you explain the Libertines?), and once in a great while, they choose a group from our side of the pond to praise, champion, and essentially claim as their own (‘sup, Strokes?). So starting with their debut, and even more-so upon the release of 2005’s Aha Shake Heartbreak, Kings of Leon went from being on a few critics’ “cool lists” to sharing tea and crumpets with Oasis, with their mugs plastered on the cover of the NME every three issues or so (splitting time with the Libertines, presumably).
Still, America shrugged its shoulders. Maybe it’s cos the dudes are all brothers (well, the drummer is a cousin), and American brother-bands just aren’t taken seriously over here (the Brits have Oasis and we have, uh, Hanson?). Or maybe they’re just too goddamn good looking. Or perhaps it’s because their brand of rock and roll isn’t as easily digestible as, say, Kid Rock’s, who somehow gets away with combining Southern-rock clichés with recycled RUN DMC beats.
Whatever the case, KOL must have realized that a little change was in order. Starting on last year’s basically awesome Because of the Times, and on into the new Only by the Night, the down-home, “aw shucks” country boy thing gets pushed to side a bit, and as a result, a more succinct, melodic, and bold side of the band has come forth. Examples? How about we start with “Be Somebody,” a tune strewn with electrifying U2-ism’s in the guitar work, with brooding singer Caleb Followill’s chugging baritone going on about “loosening” his tie — which, really, is just what this band needs. Elsewhere, “Closer” bumps on with a sexy swagger that is at once grungy, spacey, and soulful, and at 3:16, when the song is left to breath for a moment…well, it’s nothing short of spine tingling. “Notion” nods to the Leon of old, but takes the path of trusted rootsy rockers Petty and Springsteen — less “Bonnaroo” if you will — with plonky pianos and crunchy-vs.-ringing guitar jangle that comes off effortlessly. Hell, even the wonky Johnny Greenwood-esque guitar lead sounds right here. The anthemic “Use Somebody” reaches for Arcade Fire/Coldplay levels of grandiosity, but brings things down to Earth with a little bit of restraint, and the ability to know that three minutes and fourty-five seconds is long enough to make your point. “Crawl” combines religious sentiments with a killer bass riff that could have been lifted from DFA 1979’s last album (or, more accurately, Joy Division’s whole catalouge) and drumming that nods to Led Zep’s “Kashmir,” as Caleb taunts “the crucified USA” to “learn to crawl” before he walks away. Hm, looks like even they realize America needs to play catch up when it comes to their own band.
Of course, we’ve all heard lead single “Sex on Fire” by now — with a title like that, how could we not? But even if it functions as the albums “popular” jam, the song still stands out on the album for it’s confident stance and passionate delivery by the whole band. And really, who doesn’t want to lean over to a loved one and shout, “Yo SEX is on FIYAAAAH!” during a nice moment of intimacy? We know we do. Thanks Kings of Leon. Oh…sweet new haircuts, by the way. — Ryan Allen
“Crawl,” from Kings of Leon’s YouTube Channel.