Friday, March 04, 2005

you gold-digging mothers

At the encouragement of a friend of mine who shares a similar irrational and unavoidable passion for music, I checked out a copy of the Kings of Leon's new and unfortunately titled album "Aha Shake Heartbreak." I'd heard a little of their work in dribs and drabs when the British steel hype machine had wrapped its sweaty tentacles around the Followill Brothers' narrow hips and declared them "The Southern Strokes!" to anyone who would listen. American critics swooned, kinda, and I remember they were slated to play a date a few weeks after the Drive By Truckers at the Troubadour in West Hollywood a couple years ago. For those who don't know, the Troubadour is a launching pad of a venue where waiting outside for what would never be called a miracle ticket becomes a cottage industry for hipster UCLA students and others eager to catch a band mid-coronation. Or mid-collapse. The White Stripes, the Arcade Fire, they all touch stage at the Troubadour in the hopes of wowing the world. Girded by throwback facial hair, model-thin physiques and what I heard where catchy, southern rock fueled ditties, the Kings of Leon were one of those bands.

Then they disappeared, briefly. Maybe the show didn't go well, I'm not sure, but what I heard from their album (tracked through in earnest at one of the listening stations at Aron's Records) didn't grab me. Twangy, maybe, but my ordinary weakness for the Almighty Twang wasn't tickled. Instead I kept waiting for the band to cut loose into something soulful, or at least blow my hair back with some interesting musicianship. The songs chugged along, but none of that came. Maybe attendees at the Troubadour that night felt the same way.

Now they're back, and apart from a ringing endorsement from this friend (whose tastes have been simpatico with mine in the past), the hype machine sits cold and dusty, biding its time for something else like the Kills to happen by. Reviews I've read haven't been anywhere near the raves or hopeful speculation of two years ago, which actually helped my friend's case.

The album isn't good, at least to what my ears crave. There are some nice grooves in there peppering the songs, but then Followill Brother A or whatever his name is starts yelling over them with a complete lack of subtlety or nuance. The band's got a nice, if a bit trebly, "modern throwback" rock sound going, and this guy's yelling over everything like he's trying to hail a cab. I can actually see him in the studio, eyes half closed, feeling 'the spirit' of Mick Jagger or whomever as he howls into a pantyhose-shielded mic. Not a bad thing, sure, but just not what I want to see when I'm listening to an album. I want to imagine the band playing on stage, or let the music behave in an evocative manner so I paint my own pictures. If all I can picture when I'm listening to your music is you, then I probably want to listen to something else. Even the studio-sculpted Pet Sounds (which is also not my thing) doesn't paint a picture of a crumbling Brian Wilson in different rooms laying down his tracks, it just sounds like the sun.

So that was demerit one. His over-the-top voice is rock 'n' roll, and indeed swaggers, if you go for that sort of thing, but if you don't it just sounds like grandstanding. I don't want to cheer the quarterback, I want to pull for the team. The band who first personified this 'rock 'n roll' glamour would probably be the rolling stones, a collection of decadent personalities and cartoon characters selling their souls for rock 'n roll (or perhaps a bottle of Jack, which ever sounds better at 2 a.m.). And my point is, I don't care about that. Sure, I enjoy the Stones, but beyond selected tracks from their compiliation "Hot Rocks" and the comparitive group effort of Exile on Main Street, I've got all I need. The debate used to be Beatles v. the Stones, and I'm a Beatles guy (although for awhile I desperately wanted to be a Stones guy, mostly for the claim's contrarian spirit).

So, my point being, if that does it for you give Kings of Leon a try and sample their swagger. There's not much 'southern rock' to their work, but there's an atmosphere, like Interpol trapped on the "Southern Comfort" hunting trip.

An interesting side note, a reviewer from Paste magazine indicated that 'the boys' missed a chance to let these songs develop as 'jams.' This is an interesting angle as that's not something you hear about the Strokes or Interpol, bands whose music seems cut from a similar mold as 'the boys' offerings. In fact, Kings of Leon give you 2 and a half to three minute laser-sharp guitar pop and rock. Simple. Direct. There are no jams because there's just no room to wiggle into one. I wonder, if this band were from Oregon would reviewers be waiting with bated breath for some Allmann Brothers-esque break, some guitar freak-outthat would stretch into the 12 minute range (which, mind you, would neatly take up about a third of "Aha Shake Heartbreak")?

Southernerns have every right to make straightahead rock too, people. Long hair and a beard doesn't make you kick out the jams--chops and, perhaps, a canoe full of pot do. Grab some North Mississippi Allstars if you want some nice, noodly blues, but let the Kings of Leon do their thing. Just let them do it somewhere out of earshot from me.


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