In End of the Century, a recent documentary that takes a behind-the-scenes look at The Ramones, the band isn’t shy about expressing confusion and frustration over never making it big in the U.S. Sure, most people have heard of The Ramones and if you played “I Wanna Be Sedated” for a random selection of Americans, most people would recognize it. These days, it’s even retro-chic to wear Ramones t-shirts (now sold in Urban Outfitters and Express). But compared with the band’s success in the U.K., the following here is minimal.
Kings of Leon face the same dilemma. The band’s first release, Youth & Manhood, is platinum almost two times over in the U.K., but only sold about 125,000 here. There’s no good reason, really; like The Ramones’ predicament, it’s pretty much unexplainable. The band even has a great story—three brothers and first cousin decide to form a band and sing songs about debauchery despite being the sons and nephew of a fundamentalist traveling preacher from Tennessee; the oldest member of the band (drummer Nathan Followill) is 25 and the youngest (bassist Jared) is 18. It’s hard to top that story, and it’s made them media darlings as well, with solid reviews and/or features in Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Maxim, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, etc. Yet, mainstream America has yet to embrace the hairy brethren.
It’s tough to say whether the Kings will overcome what The Ramones couldn’t. Snagging the opening slot for U2 could do wonders. But, fan base or not, the band’s new album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, is deliciously dirty, gruff rock and roll. Don’t be deceived by “Southern rock” descriptions of Kings of Leon. You won’t find any five-minute guitar solos or anything reminiscent of Lynyrd Skynyrd/Allman Brothers (well, maybe one song). The sound is closer to 60s garage rock, and though comparisons to The Strokes are misguided, a more visceral Creedence Clearwater Razorlight isn’t too far off. Aha was recorded completely live in Los Angeles, with no overdubs, giving the sound an authentically raw quality. (Think 8-track in a neighbor’s basement.) The 12 tracks come out to about 35 minutes.
Caleb Followill’s vocals are almost too slurred and gravely to be endearing. After a while, though, his crusty voice fits right in with songs that mostly deal with long, lascivious nights (or their repercussions). It’s sometimes hard to tell he’s dealing with anything. “Pistol of Fire” ends up sounding much more like “Pistowwww of Fiiiyuh.” “Milk” seems to involve something about a comb over, an hourglass body and a toothbrush, all sung in Caleb’s dry-as-a-bone, toxic (like drinking orange juice after using the aforementioned toothbrush) tones. So for half of the album, you might not pick up on what the 21-year-old is saying, but you can still be pretty sure Papa Followill isn’t proud. Thinly veiled sexual allusions run rampant, such as on “Soft”: “I’d pop myself in your body / I’d come into your party / But I’m soft.” (“Soft” = “Sowwf.”)
The stripped-down songs don’t become predictable either. Nice morsels of fuzzy guitars lay on top of impressive bass lines (which are possibly the best part of each track) in every song with hip, didn’t-see-it-coming tone and melody changes. Nathan’s drumming is simplistically creative with a danceable, new wave feel. In “Slow Nights So Long,” the track is mostly upbeat with an infectious bass riff, then settles down at the end for a surprisingly pleasant and even slightly smooth outro with soft piano and lightly strummed (clean!) guitar: “Rise and shine all you gold-digger mothers / Are you too good to tango with the poor, poor boys.” The opening guitar riff for “Day Old Blues” is almost a direct cop of the Allman Brother’s “Melissa,” but it morphs into ballsier, pure rock and roll. The Kings’ first single, “The Bucket,” rocks the hardest of all and probably conveys the most emotion, mostly because the majority of the song is somewhat decipherable.
I’ll be anxious to hear what Kings of Leon have in store for the next album. And, though I wouldn’t trade the sound on Aha, I’d be curious to see what the Kings would sound like with some more production—just a little reverb and some overdubs? But, if they never make it big over here, maybe we’ll be treated to an entertaining albeit bitter documentary years down the road. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
Crossed Keys – Saviors
Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds
Philadelphia’s Crossed Keys are an interesting intersection between melodic hardcore and punk, taking an earnest approach to the sound that made its way from the underground in the late 90s and early 2000s. This relatively new outfit is the result of Kid Dynamite and Samiam in a blender- in the best way possible. The Kid Dynamite influence may be a given since Crossed Eyes features KD’s drummer Dave Wagenschutz, but the band’s pedigree also includes members of bands like Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer and The Curse, all backing the melancholic vocal work of frontman Joshua Alvarez (Halo of Snakes). So while Crossed Keys are somewhat new, its members have been cutting their teeth within their respective circles for years, and their new EP Saviors shows the work of well-seasoned musicians finding new energy in old sounds.
Saviors is backboned by the furious urgency and energy that Kid Dynamite showed through their history, but while Jason Shevchuk’s vocals were beautifully abrasive, Alvarez takes a more restrained, wistful approach to singing. Songs like the opening “Times of Grace” are musically up-tempo percussions and razor-sharp guitars, but are buoyed by Alvarez’s more melodic vocals. His vocals rest at a good place between Samiam’s Jason Beebout and that NYHC tone exhibited by bands like Token Entry and Grey Area. In songs like “R.J.A” and the closing title track, Crossed Keys find more success with their brand of blistering speed meets harmony- slowing down only for the kind of melancholic punk that made Samiam a noted name. While much of Saviors is built on pace, it wasn’t always this way for the band. In fact, their 2017 EP, I’m Just Happy That You’re Here, leans closer to Samiam than it does to Kid Dynamite (the song “Jeff Pelly vs. The Empire” is particularly fantastic), so there’s been an uptick of urgency with Saviors.
For fans of any of the aforementioned bands here, there is plenty to like with Crossed Keys and plenty to like in Saviors. It’s succinct, to the point, but filled with ample reflection and exploration that gives the EP depth and resonance. Any band that has found influence from Kid Dynamite is most certainly OK by us (this site is named after a KD song after all), but Crossed Keys does more than just tip their cap. This one’s a really good one, and worth your time.
Pine – Pine
Pine’s debut album is a kind of hypnotic melancholia
Where did Ottawa’s Pine come from? It’s a question worth asking after listening to their painfully gorgeous self-titled debut album. Pine use the phrase “doom and gloom never sounded so sweet” to describe their sound, and true to that, this 11-track outing is filled with the kind of hypnotic melancholia that became the playbook for a great many Midwestern emo bands that emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s. The biggest difference here is that while Pine have the heartbreak down pat, their musical sense of loss is lifted slightly by the airy, more wistful sounds of their guitar-strewn songs. Sure, there’s a lot that sounds like a great Mineral record or a Gloria Record album, but there’s also traces of Florida indie/emo band The Rocking Horse Winner and at times, bands like Rainer Maria.
Pine are buoyed by the great vocal work of Darlene Deschamps. Her voice soars through tracks like “Memento” and the terrific “Lusk”. The latter in particular is a great example of how Pine lull you into a sense of calm before it explodes in a collage of symphonic distortion and post-rock twinkling. In “Sunder” they ascend to louder, more expansive sounds. The song is a great combination of thick, fuzzy guitars, mid-tempo percussion work, and that pained vocal delivery that gives the song an extra punch in the guts.
The album took an impressive 2 years to finish, and you can hear the trials and tribulations of that gestation period through the songs. There’s pain, sadness, anger and frustration in songs like the intro “Within You” and the more new emo-esque “Swollen”, but also beauty, and as the album concludes, a sense of incredible catharsis. The record SOUNDS great too, with production values (by a production team that includes Will Yip, who has helmed records by Circa Survive, Braid, Saosin, and the Bouncing Souls to name a few) adding to the grand cinematic finish of the record.
For those who love what emo was in the mid to late 90s will find much to like about Pine just as much as those who like Explosions in the Sky and their post-rock brethren. Pine have been crafting their sound over the last few years and while their previous EP Pillow Talk showed a solid foundation, this new self-titled record is the work of a band close to the height of their abilities. Moving, beautiful, and littered with life’s roller coaster of emotions as songs, Pine is definitely recommended listening.