September 18, 2003

Kings of Leon: Sons of a Preacher Man

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Heralded by some critics as the new saviors of southern rock, Kings of Leon have garnered critical comparisons to every legendary Southern band from the Allman Brothers to Lynyrd Skynrd. And while the band might fail to live up to the hype surrounding their new release, they’re simply too busy serving up generous portions of noisy, Southern-flavored garage rock to really care.

Comprised of the three sons of a Nashville Pentecostal preacher and their first cousin, the band recently released their debut LP via RCA. Aptly titled Youth & Young Manhood (the band members range in age from sixteen to twenty-three) the album is less about Duane Allman-esque guitar virtuosity than greasy rock n’ roll. The follow-up to the group’s critically acclaimed EP Holy Roller Novocaine, Youth & Young Manhood finds the band embracing their roots while drawing on a variety of influences scattered across the musical map. Kings of Leon spent their formative years honing their instrumental and vocal chops in evangelical churches from Tennessee to Oklahoma, and the result is a degree of cohesiveness in their playing usually reserved for more experienced groups. Moreover, the band shows uncommon maturity; they know when to lay back in the groove and when to really dig in.

As the album opens with the honky-tonk swagger of “Red Morning Light” it’s easy to hear obvious echoes of the classic Nashville sound. But at times the band feels more like The Strokes than The Allmans, as brash guitar chords and fervent drumming carry the day. After a strong opening trio of hard rockers, the Followill clan settles into a more relaxed pace with one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Joe’s Hard.” The song is, perhaps, the best evidence of the strong influence of artists like Tom Petty and Neil Young on the band. But the group refuses to quiet down for too long, “California Waiting” and “Spiral Staircase” find them quickly returning to their characteristically hard rocking form.

Kings of Leon’s influences are varied but they’ve still managed to forge an impressively consistent style. Matthew Followill’s lead guitar work, often frenzied and drenched in feedback, combined with Caleb’s vocals — which are alternately growled, slurred, and mumbled — lend the songs a definite air of authenticity. But the rumbling grooves, courtesy of the rhythm section of drummer Nathan and bassist Jared, are what really propel the record. Lyrically, the album doesn’t cover much substantive territory. Nathan and Caleb, who share chief song-writing duties, seem unable to diverge much from formulaic adolescent ruminations on girls and teenage love. Luckily, the vocal delivery overshadows the significant lyrical shortcomings.

And while the album is a decidedly raucous affair, the excellent production of the veteran Ethan Johns (Ryan Adams, Counting Crows) keeps it from getting too messy. Johns pulls in the reins at precisely the right moments, resulting in arrangements that expertly balance structure with the band’s more chaotic instincts. Ultimately, what the band lacks in sonic and lyrical innovation, they make up for in a rowdy testament to good ole’ boy soul. Youth & Young Manhood is proof that Southern rock never died — it’s only beginning to evolve.

Archived article by Mathew Gewolb