CD Review: The Kings of Leon / Only By The Night

    Don’t bring Don McLean’s “American Pie” with its ode to Buddy Holly ‘round here.
    Every son and daughter of the South knows that Oct. 20, 1977, was the true day the music died. That’s when the plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd crashed and burned on the hard, red clay of a Mississippi glade, effectively ending the greatest Southern boogie band of its generation. (My apologies to the current, reformed version of Skynyrd, but it’s really nothing more than a ghost of the group, a tribute band performing “Free Bird” five nights a week to middle-aged guys in faded Confederate flag T-shirts and graying ladies in too-tight tube tops.){mosimage}
    Yes, the kings of the South are dead and gone. Long live the new kings ... the Kings of Leon.
On its fourth studio album, Only by the Night, the quartet from Tennessee shows why they’re the heir apparent to the Southern rock crown.
    The Kings — made up of the three Followill brothers: Caleb (guitar), Nathan (drums), and Jared (bass), as well as first cousin Matthew Followill (guitar) — pound out their rhythms with an abandon and a Southern-fried swagger that conjures a Dixiefied version of the Sex Pistols ... except these guys can actually play their instruments.
    The Kings had a lot to live up to coming off the beautifully ragged 2007 release Because of the Times, which marked these sons of a Pentecostal preacher as the true evangelists of Southern rock ‘n’ roll. And while Only by the Night doesn’t quite match the raw beauty of Because of the Times, it still paints an aural portrait of all the Kings’ usual props: lust and love and sin, soaked with a tumbler of Southern Comfort and a smidgen of axle grease from  a jacked-up ‘69 Camaro.
    Fans of the Kings may be put off by the album’s opening track, “Closer,” which sounds a little like U2 on the skids (the band did tour with U2 in 2005, hence the Celtic rockers’ influence), but the music quickly gets back to its Reconstruction roots on “Crawl,” with its fuzzed-out guitar and “hell yeah” lyrics that I interpreted as a sly swipe at Islamic terrorists and other bad actors who have burned the flag and killed our countrymen — fanatics who “never went to Sunday mass,” who vilify the “crucified USA.” Your interpretation may vary, perhaps wildly.
    The train keeps a rollin’ on the album’s obvious first single, “Sex on Fire,” which smolders slowly, like that first great summer kiss in the parking lot of the Winn-Dixie — young lust that explodes with the inevitable “Hot as a fever / Rattling bones / I could just taste it, taste it.”
    Things get plaintive on “Be Somebody,” a song about loneliness — a shy guy or girl aching to win the homecoming king or queen’s favor for at least one moment: “Given a chance, I’m gonna be somebody / If for one dance, I’m gonna be somebody / Open the door, it’s gonna make you love me / Facing the floor, I’m gonna be somebody.”
    If you’ve never listened to the Kings of Leon and want a condensed, Cliff’s Notes version of what the band is all about, check out the album’s fifth track, “Manhattan,” which rings with the Kings’ trademark greasily glorious guitar work and the Southern singsong drawl of vocalist Caleb Followill, who has perhaps the most unique set of pipes since Rod Stewart. It’s a song about a hedonistic hillbilly gone to the big city, a fish out of water, but still living it up in the big pond — a transplanted King of New York in full rebel yell, proclaiming “These avenues and these reservoirs / We gonna show this town / How to kiss these stars.”
    The whole album percolates with a brew of the obvious old school influences — Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, the Faces — as well as some fresh takes on the genre that make the Kings of Leon a sort of Southern version of the Strokes — only more sensual, more  introspective, just ... more.
    If you are the type who needs to know what theme runs through an album, I’d say that when you get down to the bones, Only by the Night is about seizing the moment, grabbing lust and love by the throat and holding tight like a drunk grasping his last glass of scotch ... because you never know if you’ll ever have a grip on it again.
    Long live the Kings.

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