Saturday, October 30, 2010

Album Review: Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown (4/5)

Until 2008, Kings of Leon was a relatively unknown southern band that had achieved moderate success in Britain with the occasional top 20 (but not top 10) hit. That changed dramatically with their last album, Only By The Night, which vaulted them several status notches up to be one of the biggest rock bands in the world. On the back of their two major international hits, "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody"--the latter of which won the Grammy for Record of the Year--they became pop stars as well.

Come Around Sundown then is their first album recorded while being extremely famous, making it a "sophomore" album of sorts. With expectations raised, what would they do? The answer is churn out something pretty similar to Only By the Night. While that album was a departure from their previously rougher, more retro sound, targeted squarely at the mainstream, this one plays it safe, delivering a pretty similar sound of mostly mid-tempo guitar rockers. "Radioactive" shares a similarly upbeat, radio-friendly vibe with their recent big hits, although it lacks as strong a hook and therefore won't be as big a hit.

Some of the moodier, multi-guitar songs are among my favorite, reminding me a bit of Interpol. "Pyro" is particularly good, channel a dual-guitar and bass melody over Caleb Followill's self deprecating lyric ("I will never be your cornerstone"). "The Immortals" has a similarly enticing guitar melody with a more prominent bass line. "No Money" goes for a crowd-stirring big guitar rock sound.

While fame hasn't affected their sound, they do address it in their lyrics. A common cliche yes, but it plays out in interesting ways. The notion of place for example--when you become famous, does it change where you live and where you call home? On the ominous opening track, "The End," the song concludes with "I'll forever roam, no I ain't got a home." Spoken like a rock star whose world tour has gone on a few weeks too long.

Other songs confirm though, that for this band, home is still the American south. Take "The Face," another lovely song, conveying an unfulfilled romantic ache like one last slow dance. It's a last-ditch romantic plea from a rural rocker to an urbanite female: "if you give up New York, I'll give you Tennessee." Despite the fact that the band could easily afford Manhattan digs, they refuse to be uprooted to their southern origins. "Radioactive" embodies this ideal more explicitly: "just drink the water, where you came from." No Evian for them. Twangy "Back Down South" seeks to dispel any notion about their geographic allegiance.

Another issue is whether they are seeking to maintain their newfound fame. Crafting Come Around Sundown to sound a lot like Only By the Night would seem to say they are, but near the end there's the rather irreverent "Mi Amigo" that says otherwise. Horns give a south of the border flavor while the lyrics are sure to raise eyebrows: "I've got a friend..showers me in boozes; tells me I've got a big ole dick and she wants my ass home." Didn't expect to hear that here. You certainly won't hear it on the radio.

Most of the songs go for mid-tempo with an emphasis on big guitar sound. There are few genuinely quiet songs apart from "Back Down South" and "Beach Side," which pushes the guitar back to just a repetitive plucking. Lovestruck "Birthday" is mostly a mellower song, save for its more rousing choruses. Closing track "Pickup Truck" is also a bit quieter by comparison.

This an interesting album and a worthy follow-up to their last, even though it isn't quite as satisfying. The first half has generally the strongest songs, although the album is pretty consistent throughout.

Best: Pyro, The Face, The Immortals, Radioactive, Back Down South, Birthday

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