Kings of Leon is synonymous with home-grown southern rock. Bound by blood, the Followill troupe — three sons of a Pentecostal preacher man and their token cousin — makes sure their roots drip through their music, resulting in a messy twang and drunken drawl. Their first albums, 2003’s rollicking “Youth & Young Manhood” and 2005’s more melodic “Aha Shake Heartbreak,” marked the gang of four as deep-fried badasses. Regrettably, however, that epithet may have to be rescinded in light of their newest effort.
“Because of the Times” is like nothing we’ve heard before from these boys — and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Followills were never exceptional musicians, and they were the first to admit it. So instead of forcing the listener through albums of heavy composition and labyrinthine instrumentation, they stuck to the basics: steady drums and catchy riffs that even dipped into the repetitive and the sultry bawl of lead singer Caleb. And it worked. Excellently. The releases did not highlight the musical expertise of the Kings but rather their attitude. Here were four boys rejecting their evangelical background, committing instead to the world of rock n’ roll. Their music achieved cocaine highs, heartbroken lows and the perpetual squalor of sardined ashtrays and day-old Heineken.
It’s unclear what it is about these “times” that no longer welcomes the dusty garage rock of past Kings albums. It’s not as if music or fan reception have changed all too much in the past four years; on the contrary, it now seems anyone will listen to anything you stamp on an album. It seems, though, that the difference in the times has less to do with the listener than with the record label. The Kings’ humble fame in the States, despite their lionization across the pond, apparently didn’t satisfy the dependably altruistic and principled record label, which probably pushed the band toward an album that would satisfy the masses, or a larger mass at least.
Hailed as their long-awaited breakout album, “Because of the Times” does echo the bigger sound that often propels a band into the minds of both hipsters and harpos (that’s “Oprah” backwards … and the name of Her magazine). But while the sound attempts to scrape the sphere of Billboard hits and a sold-out Madison Square Garden, it is the album’s aural scrape that is most noticeably jarring. Time after time, Caleb rejects his once-seductive cry, opting instead for a desperate shriek. Sounding like any mediocre rock song, “Charmer” becomes unbearable with a series of shrieks peppered throughout.
Listening to the album multiple times, one becomes more willing to accept its highs and ignore the unfortunate lows because hidden throughout the missteps are a few notable tracks that pack all the glory of the Followill flair. “True Love Way” juxtaposes the raucous and the revelatory as a laryngitic moan supported by an energetic rhapsody is stripped to tender confession. “Fans,” on the other hand, focuses on the celebratory amid shouts and chants, as we’re told to “Rock to the rhythm and bop to the beat of the radio.” Finally, “Arizona” closes the album on a wistful note, hinting at romance though fearful of committing to love.
Maybe “Because of the Times” is just another example of the bad versus different predicament; perhaps it’s just something to which you have to accustom yourself. Maybe sitting indoors on a rainy New Haven day is not how this album is supposed to be enjoyed. Well, that one is for sure. Hopefully, the Kings just needed to get this kink out of their system and will soon be ready to return to the romp and rock of their past.