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.