Monday, September 30, 2013

RECORD REVIEW: Kings of Leon "Mechanical Bull"

Mechanical Bull
(RCA Records) 

After a three-year 
break, those fun-
loving Followill 
boys are back with 
their latest effort — 
a record that was 
well worth the wait.

I recall first reading about an exciting new southern rock / blues  hybrid from Tennessee in the pages of Rolling Stone back in 2003 — I was intrigued. They were unlike any other band at the time. In fact, Kings of Leon were so cool and unique that I was baffled by how they could have gotten signed at all —  especially given that this was during the height of Britney mania.

Their first three records, Youth & Young Manhood ('03), Aha Shake Heartbreak ('04) and Because of the Times ('07) were rootsy, raw and oozed mystique. But although they were embraced  immediately abroad, Kings of Leon just couldn't seem to sneak into America's rock and roll "champagne room."

I saw Kings of Leon live during the 2005 Aha Shake Heartbreak tour. At the time, the band's chart presence was less than impressive. Hence, I was shocked by the sold-out crowd that night at Orlando's House of Blues. I remember it well — there was me, a creepy-looking guy named Antoine — and 2,998 screaming chicks! Despite the rather alterno sound of their records, live, they were as edgy and high-energy as AC/DC circa 1979. By the encore it was crystal clear to me that these kids were rock stars and it would be just a matter of time before they became huge.

I would wager a guess that it was "do or die" for the Kings by the time they released their fourth record, Only by the Night, in 2008. Frontman Caleb Followill seemingly had been persuaded to hang up his trademark marble-mouth vocal style for one (slightly) more audible. Hmm, add a little enunciation to a fistful of snappy tunes and voilà! — a platinum-seller was born!

Kings of Leon - 2013

Kings of Leon certainly hadn't gone Journey-O-Styxwagon. However, "Sex on Fire" and "Use Somebody" were monster-sized pop hits. As a result, they finally were discovered by an infinite glut of middle-aged cover bands who systematically bludgeoned those poor songs to death — nearly squelching my passion for the band in the process.

Although 2010's Come Around Sundown failed to deliver any American chart-busting hit singles, it did achieve gold-plus status. And for me, "Mary," "The Immortals" and "Back Down South" were just a few of the glorious moments that helped to create a record even more satisfying than its predecessor. 

One key to the Kings' quality output over the years is that they've been dealing consistently from the same deck. In 2013, the Followill brothers: frontman / guitarist Caleb Followill, drummer Nathan Followill, bassist Jared Followill  and (cousin) guitarist Matthew Followill once again have joined forces with longtime producer / songwriter Angelo Petraglia to create Mechanical Bull — a record that offers the band's signature factory features while also providing that "new car" smell.

"Supersoaker," the radio-friendly lead single, kicks off the record with a southern-fried bang.

Aside from simply being a great rock band, Kings of Leon always has en- gaged fans with compelling lyrics — powerful and personal stories. And in that regard, "Rock City" stands boldly alongside many of the band's most popular staples.


I was running through the
desert - I was looking for drugs.
And I was searching for a 
woman who was willing to love.
(from "Rock City")

In a similar vein as "Red Morning Light" (2003), "Don't Matter" recaptures the raw, nut-busting honesty of the band's first record and serves as one of Bull's shining beacons. Additionally, the Joshua Tree-flavored "Beautiful War" and the recent Starbucks / iTunes freebie, "Temple," are also mighty nuggets.

But Kings of Leon is also a riff-oriented band and the catchy main riff of "Wait for Me" strikes a (very) close resemblance to "Dysfunctional Family" — the 1995 track from Florida's former hardcore kingpins, Dead Serios.

From command and conquer to the subsequent breakup and makeup, much of the band's focus is (as usual) — chicks. And of that ilk, the groovy, bass-driven, guaranteed audience participation sing-along, "Family Tree" and the more subtle and ambient "Comeback Story" represent some of the tastier tracks. 

I am your family tree - I know 
your A to ZThis is a secret 
proposition, lay your hands 
on me. Nothing to talk about 
darling, it's all make-believe. I
see your hands are shaking, but
my heart is breaking me down.
(from "Family Tree")

Despite recent YouTube clips of its member's onstage rock star meltdowns, Mechanical Bull presents Kings of Leon in top-form (at least in the studio) and showcases the band as one that likely still has some tread on its tires.

-Christopher Long
(September 2013)

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