Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Kings of Leon

I listen to all kinds of music, and feel a special affinity for many, many, many artists, performers, composers and songwriters. I am not toooooo negative about the state of pop music because I understand that the music business exists AS a business and always has. Good stuff happens, bad stuff happens. And, of course, there is the matter of personal and collective "taste." As I tell my Pop Music students, artists who think they made a "great" record that will occupy the masses are delusional to a certain degree; there is no predictability or consensus in the marketplace of popular music. Prediction of success is a bigger gamble than facing a roulette wheel with your last chips, in my honest opinion.

So, today while I work from home, stay out of the snow and watch the swirl of events in D.C., I am also happy that I stumbled upon the band Kings of Leon. Every once in a while, an unfamiliar song will catch me off guard and I am actually INTRIGUED rather than just pacified. On these occasions, I don't rationalize why the song sounds like it does---another "hit" from a band whose recycled mediocrity will never change (Nickelback), an attempt at experiment from a bored artist (Gwen Stefani), the familiar sound of an oldie-but-goodie in the 21st century (AC/DC), and so on. Sometimes, a band will throw a song out there and I catch it. And then I must know more.

That's what happened while driving in my car about 3 weeks ago when a Canadian station played "Sex on Fire" by Kings of Leon. I had no idea who this band could be (new sound, unfamiliar vocals, great things going on) and no context to evaluate the music (from above paragraph). When the DJ identified the band, my verbal reaction was "NO WAY!!!?!?" Now HERE was something I could work with. And here's why:

--I saw a rangy and nervous Kings of Leon perform on a small side stage at Bonnaroo in 2004. No one was on the big stage, and I was wondering around Roo Village looking for something that sounded interesting and in the shade (oooooh, Tennessee in June.....look out!). I liked them. Young, sort of raw and powerful, definitely passionate and Southern Rock-ish. My Morning Jacket performed that day, too, and while I didn't know at the time that both bands were from Tennessee, I liked KoL's sound, hutspah, and intensity and somehow connected them to my pleasure with MMJ. Hmmmm. And maybe the Allman Brothers (love them!) Then I had a few more beers, wandered to a new stage, and sort of forgot about KoL for four more years. Ooops.
--Kings of Leon are from Nashville but are decidedly a rock band. I like that already. I really had no idea they kept making records, and as a viewer from the sidelines at Bonnaroo, that festival throws a mishmash of music together, and again, who knows what happens after. So, I'm glad they kept making records.
--lead singer, Caleb Hollowill, has a unique but crazylovely voice. Even when I saw him on stage at his golden age of 22, he had some power, youth and ingenuity. That comes through on the records, too.
--all the band members are related. Three Hollowill brothers and a first cousin. As an only child, I am very intrigued by siblings....how they look a like (or not), how they are friends (or not), how they display elements of being in the same family (or not), etc. I'm offering an analysis that these four dudes increase the intensity and focus of the band because they are related. Why not? Serious commitment, similar focus, being able to work things out, not fighting and adding silly drama to the music (Oasis, Black Crowes), live, laugh, love sort of stuff. I like that part of their biography.
--the name is a tribute to their father and grandfather, both "Leons." The father is/was some sort of preacher Tennessee. So now there is a deep religious vibe going on, some kind of spiritual juju that guys this young have probably not reconciled yet. A connection with their past. Does it come through in the music? Yes it does. Nicely, though. Not preachy. Searching and discovering. Good stuff. And, what a gesture....the "Kings of Leon." A tribute to their roots or something. Sentimental. But not sappy. Sexy and grounded.
--now on to the sound of the band....I used to write press releases and band bios for local and national bands in Denver. This is NOT easy. Describing a band's sound as a publicist is much more difficult than a critic. Publicists have to stay positive and come up with 42 different adjectives that can reach a reader so as to make him or her "hear" the "unique" sound of whatever band is the focus of the article. Sheesh. As a critic, the opinions flow easily.....
For Kings of Leon, I've already used rangy, raw, Southern rock, crazylovely, passionate, tight and probably a few more just in this short blog post. I can add spatial, meaning the production has depth. Caleb Hollowill sounds like he's standing 5 feet from the mic and just bellowing at times, yet it isn't over done (similar to the work of early Eddie Vedder, "Alive" for instance). Yummy. The guitars are there, too, but not "in your face/in your ears," at a distance but clear. So, great production, balance, and layering in the songwriting. The lead guitar is always crisp but fluid and full, like a big tube of blue neon....see what I mean? What am I talking about??? Anyway, the drummer plays tastefully, and the only term I can come up with is from my days as a classical pianist: con fuoco. Italian for "with vigor and speed" derived from the Latin "fire." Like Beethoven. That sums up the drummer. For sure. And one final thing, I love love love the lead singer's crazy voice. Raspy, haunting, full, wide. Like a surging river, with rapids, cliffs and deep calm pools.
--subject matter--there may be some issues haunting these young guys. There is some anguish, catharsis, pain, ecstasy, beauty, grace, sometimes in the same song (or not). The only track on the new record that I tend to skip over is "17." Other than that, I'm hooked. Line and sinker. And as I absorb the past records, I'm almost giddy.

So, that's that. See/hear for yourself if interested. Challenge my musings if needed. And as always, embrace new music at all costs!!!

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