Kings of Leon | Only by the Night (RCA)

cd_kings2.jpgIf you can listen objectively and with an open mind, there is a damn good album awaiting you.







Kings of Leon dropped their fourth studio album Only by the Night earlier this week. With the growing buzz surrounding the band, this seems to be a crucial release for them in terms of their commercial reputation. Known for their raw energy and passionate live performances, will the Kings of Leon remain on their throne after this one, or will this album be the one that critics will love to hate? Let’s find out.

Early on, you can tell this is a different Kings of Leon with the album-opening "Closer." The song features a reverb-heavy snare sound and layered guitars reminiscent more of Radiohead than the southern-garage rock riffs we’re used to from Kings of Leon. The band began to challenge their fans with their third release Because of the Times, and they seem to be continuing to evolve more into a studio band rather than the garage band early fans came to love.

The album continues on with "Crawl"; this track starts off with a squeal of feedback and a heavy overdriven bass sound. You can certainly tell the approach to recording was different this time around, as the production values are significantly more polished. Intriguing is the chorus: "The red and the whites and abused/ the crucified USA/ as their hypocrisy unfolds/ oh hell is truly on its way." Are the Kings defending their homeland from foreign critics, or is this their own political cry against the fall of the good ol’ USA?

We’re three songs in and things will begin to sound more familiar to fans of Kings with "Sex on Fire." A driving, danceable beat and a solid rhythm section carry the song. Frontman Caleb Followill’s voice shines here and is sure to make a solid live song for the female fans with his lyrical hook, "You…your sex is fire." Ouch!

We continue on our way with "Use Somebody." This one shows another different side of the Kings, and a good one at that. A sparse verse led by the vocal line, "You know that I could use somebody" leads way to a melodic chorus with layered, harmonized vocals. This is definitely different territory for these boys, but a nice display of diversity in their crafty songwriting.

Okay, I’m starting to like this record. We’re onto "Manhattan," another track that will feel familiar to those fond of previous Kings of Leon records, but with a noticeable progression. A catchy bass melody is backed nicely by reverb-laden, overdriven guitar that creates a smooth wall of sound. Is this a more mature, grown-up Kings of Leon? We’re almost halfway through the record and it’s beginning to sound that way.

Moving right along to "Revelry," this is interesting territory that the Kings often walk in. They take their Southern influences but manage to merge them in a way that won’t alienate the more (sub)urban listeners. Often, Caleb writes from an open-book, singer-songwriter-type place more similar to that of a Neil Young than most of the "indie" artists out there today. Certainly a song full of lyrical sentiment backed with twangy guitars and a more urban beat.

"Oh, she’s only seventeen," sings Caleb on the track "17." Ah, here you are, Kings of Leon. The familiar and always ear-grabbing bass lines of Jared Followill jump at you here along with the vocal harmonies. Outside of that, this is another track that shows yet another different side of Kings.; a little bit of that "soul" vibe infuses this one.

All right, I am really enjoying this record; "Notion" helps to confirm that feeling for me. Kings of Leon have always been an expressive band that had a raw quality to their music. Early on with this record ,I had begun to wonder if the more pristine production may have stripped that quality from their music, but this song confirms to me that certainly didn’t happen; the raw expressiveness is just executed in a different way than on their earlier records. This song is carried by a strong vocal performance and a nice arrangement.

"I Want You" is by far the sparsest of the tracks on Only by the Night. A beat with plenty of cowbell, some country-style licks on the gee-tar, and a lyrical narrative telling the story of friends riding around the town, drinking booze and picking up on the local girls. Some graphic sexual details in here and a catchy chorus with a nice vocal melody which states, "I want you/ just exactly like I used to/ and baby this is only bringing me down." Also a cool chicken pickin’-style guitar lead on this one by guitarist Matthew Followill.

Things pick up again here with the up-tempo number "Be Somebody." A driving beat carries the tune early, accompanied by atmospheric guitars layered with overdriven riffs. The chorus breaks the pacing and opens the song up with the hook, "Given a chance, I’m gonna be somebody." As the song reaches its crescendo, the Kings don’t pass up the opportunity to rock out with a grooving outro.

Ah, the album closer, "Cold Desert." So sad to see you guys go so soon. This melodic ballad sends us on our way until their next release, a beautifully orchestrated arrangement that certainly provides a sense of closure, though still leaves you wanting more. Well done; very well done.

So how do I sum up a record such as Only by the Night that is very much a mixed bag? At first I didn’t quite know what to make of it. I liked it; I knew that, but it didn’t quite sound like the Kings of Leon I had come to know. Many bands are criticized for not evolving and continuing to put out the same record time and time again, and then other bands are criticized for changing too much. I don’t think the Kings did either of these things. This record shows a natural progression in their songwriting and certainly a more mature side of the band. I feel this record may appeal to some people who may not have liked earlier Kings efforts, but at the same time this one may alienate some longtime fans who feel that they lost their roots or "sold out" a bit.

Overall, if you can listen objectively and with an open mind, there is a damn good album awaiting you. It’s full of curious and thoughtful lyrics, lots of solid rhythms, an abundance of textural guitar work and nice production. If I had to criticize something about this album it would be that what initially made the Kings of Leon such a refreshing band to me was somewhat lost here. For once, I was kind of hoping for more of the same from these guys. Their overdriven Gibson guitar sound was mostly missing from this record, and with that, I felt that something essential to their sound was lost. In its place, though, they put other elements that were nicely orchestrated and that show the diversity and talent of these four gentlemen, but a little more of their raw rock sound certainly would have been welcomed by me and, I’m sure, other fans alike. | Christopher Sewell

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