Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Discovering Kings of Leon

Proof of Purchase.
Earlier this year I was surfing various songs on youtube for my Notice: Music e-zine.  One thing often leads to another when I am doing that.  I check out performers that I have never heard of before just to broaden my knowledge of what is out there.  So it was that I randomly happened upon Kings of Leon (KOL).  They are not a new band but, since I basically live in middle of nowhere and my friends are not necessarily into newer alternative rock, the band was new to me.  When the band was maturing I was busy listening to the Backstreet Boys  and NSYNC with my pre-adolescent daughter, so my mind was elsewhere.  What a wonderful find!

Off and on over a few months, I acquainted myself with them enough to know they were a band whose music I wanted to acquire.  It was an experience similar to my discovery of The XX - which I blogged about previously.  KOL has been around a lot longer than The XX and has a larger catalog of music.  I purchased a fine boxed set of their five albums up to 2010 - which included a DVD of an excellent concert they gave at the O2 Arena in London in 2009.  I also bought their 2013 album, Mechanical Bull.

I have spent a lot of time listening to this material in the evenings recently as well as reading what I could find about the band on the internet.  KOL is a “garage” type band with southern rock and blues influences.  The members (three brothers and a cousin) did not start out with exceptional musical talent.  In their earliest incarnation, the brothers were still learning to master their musical instruments.  But they know their strengths and they definitely play to them. Listening to over a decade of their music in the span of a few weeks revealed solid growth and development as musicians.

Their early material was not really appreciated in the US.  It was, rather, in the UK where this Nashville-based rock band took off with a series of hits in 2003-2004.  Only in 2008 was their presence felt substantially in the US market and they became a major commercial accomplishment. They have developed a very strong core following and have enjoyed some critical success including a Grammy win in 2009 and two more in 2010.  

Achieving success was a challenge for the band, but maintaining it was perhaps even more difficult as lead singer Caleb Followill, disillusioned, walked off the stage mid-performance in 2011 forcing a cancellation of rest of their tour.  Caleb and his brother Nathan got into a full-blown fist fight while recording Come Around Sundown.  Caleb just wasn't into the overindulgence that came with all that fame anymore. Many thought that was the end of the band.

This past Friday, KOL released WALLS, their seventh studio album, which I purchased through amazon and paid a little extra for to have it delivered to my house the day of its release. I was not disappointed with the album.  Everything on it is worth listening to multiple times. It is rare that I find a group who produces entire albums of music that I enjoy from start to finish. WALLS is the group's fifth No. 1 album in the UK.

Personally, I find their music is somewhat unique in that it is not tinged with sadness or angst or other dark themes that seem to be commonplace among rock bands in general.  KOL is generally upbeat, positive without sentimentality, fun music to enjoy.  As I mentioned before with Coldplay, this music makes me feel good and that is the primary attracter driving my sudden, obsessive interest in what they have to deliver.

Though WALLS is a superior album, I would rank it behind Mechanical Bull as their strongest effort to date.  For me, Mechanical Bull (peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard  200) is a rare album, without weakness, followed closely Only by the Night (2008) and WALLS based on my personal preferences. Come Around Sundown (2010, peaked at No. 2 of the Billboard 200) and Because of the Times (2007) are both also solid efforts and would rank below those previously mentioned. Their debut album, Youth and Young Manhood (2003) sounds very stripped down, reflecting their limited early musical abilities but still manages to impress me.  It sold well in the UK which made the band’s continued evolution possible.  Aha Shake Heartbreak (2004) continued the success, but I would rank it last in the KOL catalog compared with their other material.

As I assimilated this music I made a mix of my personal favorite tunes spanning their entire career, which I listen to regularly now.  I just added six songs off of WALLS to the mix.  What follows are the songs on my mix as an introduction to what I feel to be the strongest music by KOL. Where relevant I will make a comment or two on the album or song.

The mix is grouped by album in chronological order.  So it starts with four songs off their 2003 debut and continues album by album (in the order the songs appeared on each album) right on through to WALLS.  Where possible I will offer the official music video for each tune, otherwise it is just the audio track from youtube. By happen coincidence, the first track on the mix is the first track of their first album. The last track on the mix is the final track of their most recent album.  

That first album, first track song is “Red Morning Light.” It sounds rather simple compared with their more recent work but, once again, this was before any of them had matured as musicians – Jared, the youngest brother and bass player, was still learning how to play that instrument at the time of this record, so the bass is subdued throughout this album.  This song was a hit in the UK and launched the band’s career. “California Waiting,” “Dusty,” and “Holler Roller Novocaine” (a really fun song) round out my choices from the first album, all of which show a bit of the band’s range which included blues from the very beginning. Rolling Stone reviewed this first album and found it to be a promising blend of “southern boogie and gritty garage rock” while NME called it "one of the best debut albums of the last 10 years."

One of the distinctive qualities of the KOL sound is the lead vocals supplied by.  In the earlier albums he was not so picky about singing clearly, allowing his often murmuring, crackling voice to serve almost as another musical instrument from time to time.  This reminds of how Michael Stipe performed on the early REM albums.  

“King of the Rodeo,” “Taper Jean Girl,” “Pistol of Fire,” and “Day Old Blues” are all fine songs from the second album, which represents a slightly more diverse sound.  Even though I consider this album to be the bottom of the band’s catalog, there is nothing wrong with these tunes.  They feature emerging talent with more diverse playing by drummer Nathan, and some really nice riffs by lead guitarist, cousin Matthew Followill. The blues is still an influence along with the southern rock and dirty garage sound.

By the time we get to band’s third album we have a fully expressive, musically competent band, though apparently this record did not resonate with critics as much as the first two releases.  Whatever.  I find it better than those.  At just over seven minutes, “Knocked Up” is the band’s longest song and is easily their most distinctive sound up to 2007. “Ragoo” has a nice reggae feel to it.  “Fans” is a solid, accessible rocking tune.  With “Trunk” KOL again sounds different from anything else they had played before.  A very nice bass line by Jared on this one as well as some of Caleb's finest lead vocals; a richly layered and textured song.  To me, “Arizona” is the most sophisticated song the band created up to that time.   

The fourth album was the band’s first large US commercial success (peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200), thanks to two hit songs.  “Closer” is not one of them but it is one of the most experimental KOL songs, very much worth listening to.  “Sex on Fire” (peaked at #56 on the Billboard chart) and “Use Somebody” (peaked at #4 on the Billboard chart, their biggest single to date) are the hits from this album. “Manhattan” is an easy, effective ballad.  “I Want You” has a really cool, funky groove to it.  “Cold Desert” also represents the band expanding the boundaries of their creativity, a powerful tune. I rank Only by the Night closely behind Mechanical Bull as the band’s best effort.

“The End” starts the fifth album.  It is a fact that every KOL record’s opening track is among the strongest songs on each album.  No different here. “Radioactive” (peaked at #37 on the Billboard chart) has a wonderfully huge, powerful sound. “Pyro” is one of my all-time favorite KOL songs.  They sound a bit like Coldplay on this one. “The Immortals” offers another large, passionate sound. “Back Down South” is an excellent song with the band paying homage to their Nashville roots with fiddle and slide guitar, a very laid back and celebratory track.

As I said, everything on Mechanical Bull is solid, there is no filler on that CD.  But, six tracks strike me as the strongest. “Supersoaker” is yet another example of a strong KOL opening track. “Beautiful War” continues the KOL tradition of featuring slow, steady anthems on each album. “Wait For Me” is a fantastic song with a carefree, open and loving feeling. “Family Tree” is another distinctive funky KOL tune with some grooving a cappella vocals near the end.  The four Followill’s harmonize very well and they feature strong backing vocals on many of the songs I mention here. “Comeback Story” is a really sweet, sentimental song which the group manages not to take it too far; very enjoyable with a small string section supporting and especially great backing vocals.  “On the Chin” is another big sound slow song that seems to float in the air and rounds out this incredible album.

I have now listened to WALLS (which stands for “We Are Like Love Songs”) a dozen times or so. While not quite as strong as Mechanical Bull, it is a confident and worthy effort. “Waste A Moment” was released before the album and achieved No. 1 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs list. This song is a driving positive force, you can’t feel depressed listening to this.  “Around the World” is a more recent release and has no charting information yet, but I like this one even better than the prior tune. A fun song that makes you want to grab life.  “Find Me” has some great guitar riffs, another song with a lot of drive, only this one is a more layered studio experience.  This song proves KOL has graduated from garage band status to more sophisticated level of performance. “Muchacho” is an incredibly easy-going tune with a Latin beat, another unique sound in their catalog. “Eyes on You” is really representative of where the band is today; upbeat lyrics, nice guitar, tight forceful music.  “Walls” itself is another distinctive song, probably the most contemplative the band has ever performed.  

Of course there many other songs that might have made my mix.  “Notion,” "Molly's Chambers," and “Reverend” come to mind. But, for me, these two tunes mark the limit of what I find best about KOL. I have presented what are in my opinion the 36 best KOL songs in a chronological mix. If you take time to tour them I am confident you will see how much these guys have grown in talent and musical expressiveness.  I highly recommend that if you like alt rock music tinged with garage and southern influences you should check out Kings of Leon. It took me awhile to discover them but, now that I have, they will be satisfying part of my musical life from now on.

Late Note: It was announced that WALLS became KOL's first #1 album on the Billboard 200 a few days after this post.  Deservedly so; the album is chocked full of great songs.  A real treat to listen to. Even so, comparatively the album did not outsell Mechanical Bull (which peaked at #2 in 2013) in its first week; reflecting changing economic patterns in the music industry with respect to new music.

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