Recording of March 2007: Because of the Times

KINGS OF LEON: Because of the Times
RCA (CD). 2007. Ethan Johns, prod., eng.; Lowell Reynolds, asst. eng. AAD? TT: 51:41
Performance ****½
Sonics ****

By their third album, most young rock bands have found that the evolution of their art is a lot harder than it looks. Not only do many lose focus after a successful debut, but the majority, even those who stay serious, make a record or maybe two, then suddenly find themselves out of material and ideas. Look no further than The Strokes for an example of a band stunted and badly in need of fresh energies and directions, their development apparently still stuck at the first-album mark.

If anyone knows the value of moving on, it's the brothers Followill, who were raised on the road by their father, a United Pentecostal Church minister, and their mom, who home-schooled them. By the late 1990s the father had been defrocked, the parents were divorced, and the boys—Nathan (drums), Jared (bass), and Caleb (vocals and rhythm guitar)—had moved to Nashville to be rawkers. Cousin Matthew (guitar) completed the foursome, who named their group after their grandfather and the brothers' father. Here, on album three, the brothers and cousin Followill succeed magnificently in their efforts to stretch their range and enrich the stylistic paths they've already trod.

The progression is immediately apparent. Their 2005 sophomore album, Aha Shake Heartbreak, opened with "Slow Night, So Long," a tune about wallowing in groupies that ended with these mock-serious lines: "Rise and shine all you gold-digging mothers / Are you too good to tango with the poor poor boys."

Now, on the more mature and politically titled Because of the Times, the delicately titled first track, "Knocked Up," opens with "I don't care what nobody says we're gonna have a baby." From groupies to having a baby: now that's what I call progress. Yet "Knocked Up" is a slow, moody number that builds and recedes, and opens the album with a deliberate hint that the group aspires to reach for more. The album's coda, "Arizona," is also measured, and an effective finale that should make these boys heroes in Tucson and Phoenix. Any record that turns down the volume and wants to be taken seriously at the beginning and the end says they're thinking about sequencing and making this a coherent whole.

However, any notion that Kings of Leon are going soft is dispelled by the thrash rock of track 2, "Charmer," which sounds for all the world like mid-'90s Kansas band Paw. Caleb Followill has fun howling out notes like Karen O: "Born / In West Virginia oh no / Married / To the Preacher oh no / Why she always looking at me / Why she always looking at me / Wow / She's such a charmer oh no, oh no." The bashing returns on the headbanging chorus of another track deeper into the album, "Black Thumbnail."

When it comes to enriching, however, nowhere on this album is it more apparent than in Matthew Followill's guitar playing, which continues to be the source of the band's firepower and has never sounded better. In "On Call," he speed-rocks in a blizzard of notes. On "Black Thumbnail," his guitar is a wild, screaming beast. Psychedelia remains his most potent influence, and he's finding great new effects along that crowded route.

Another deepening detail is the emergence of background vocal accents, which in "True Love" add repeated chants of "Oh, oh, oh, ohohoh." If Kings of Leon have a problem, it's the vocals of Caleb Followill, which one buyer of Heartbreak described, on, as sounding "like he eats steel wool." Ouch. Here he continues to sing in a dry-throated bray, though this time out he's finally dropped the bizarre Jamaican-British accent he affected on the two earlier albums.

Kings of Leon's transcendence of their original southern-rock influences reminds me of how Wilco left their whole Americana bag behind and fell headfirst into experimental pop rock. I suspect that "Black Thumbnail" might have been more Lynyrd Skynyrdized on an earlier album; here, it sounds like what might have happened to Ronnie Van Zant & Co. had they survived into the next century: more wound-up, thin-toned guitars, and less hillbilly picking.

The core of any band's development ultimately lies in the songwriting, and it's here that Because of the Times really scores. On KOL's two past albums, a strength has been their ability to fashion anthemic hits, the best of which remains "California Waiting," from their debut, Youth & Young Manhood. Here, though, are two accessible hits, "My Party" and "Fans," each of which contain, strangely enough, streaks of disco-beat high-hat riding.

Part of the Followills' songwriting way is to insert a catchy chorus into an otherwise twitchy garage-rock whirlwind. In "My Party," which refuses to alight on one coherent pattern, the turn comes in the chorus: "Ooh she's at my party" is instantly recognizable as being exactly the right move. Later, when the tune backs that line with a straight-ahead beat and growling guitar accompaniment, you can't resist. The only downside—one that has backed The Strokes' Julian Casablanca into a tight corner these days—is the way Caleb's excited vocals are fed through a processor. Just because young rock producers today all think it's cool to make vocals loud and ragged by using effects doesn't mean it works or has any useful place. It doesn't. But somehow it always seems to fascinate producers like Ethan Johns (son of Glyn), who's helmed all three KOL albums. Luckily, the tune's strength almost makes up for Caleb's annoying, distorted bleat. Johns, however, deserves props for the sound here, which is well balanced, dynamically rich, and not overly compressed to make every track sound as loud as possible.

The album's surprise is its big pop tune, "Fans"—the kind of guitar-rock hymn that all bands dream of someday writing but few achieve. Hooked to a big set of sturdy changes, this bonbon to the UK is the tune that's gonna sell Kings of Leon and this album to a wider audience. Too often, alt rock records are tuneless and without a single melodic hook. Not so with the Followills. Given their obvious growth on Because of the Times, it seems as if a childhood dominated by restlessness and mobility may actually have paid off.—Robert Baird