Nashville brothers Caleb, Nathan, Jared and Matthew Followill, the makeup of the grungy southern rock outfit Kings of Leon, are students of classic rock storytellers like Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. However, it took a while for them to develop the maturity and musical complexity needed to truly honor these legends.
With the release of their third LP, Because of the Times, they are getting continually closer to reaching the precedent set by their inspirations. Because of the Times plays like the sardonic confessions of the Marlboro Man. Even in this age of sterilized digitalism, it's deliciously dirty - just short of the listener having to blow the dust off the disc upon its purchase.
More than anything else, this is storyteller music. Everything weighs on lead singer Caleb's delivery; in a way, there's a great deal of dependence on his acting ability. His voice itself, though, is a great advantage for the band. It would be a reach to compare him to any known vocalist. He sounds desperately short of breath and sings like he's hanging off a cliff, screaming for help.
It is Caleb's singing that gives the songs importance, but the band's music itself gives it a very significant depth. Of particular interest is the sprawling sonic contortionism of Jared's bass playing. His work with the instrument is both understated and stingingly complex, sounding surprisingly similar to legendary bassist John Paul Jones. Caleb's guitar work, on the other hand, comes dangerously close at times to aping U2's the Edge, but for the most part it's effectively atmospheric and emotive.
Because of the Times is Kings of Leon's answer to the blues becoming soft and emotionally-drained over the decades. Their sound is more country, but they often inject a coldness into their tunes. The epic, seven-minute opener "Knocked Up," for instance, sounds lonely and estranged. This is where Caleb's lost-orphan voice comes up big. Add a lesser vocalist and the song would come off as a clumsy throwback to the gypsy fables of the Allman Brothers or Marshall Tucker Band. It's a complicated recipe, requiring a little jest to pull off, and the humor with which they speckle their material is as dry as the dusty Nashville roads that connect their songs.
When it comes down to it, the band is about as odd as straightforward southern rock can get. They are Skynyrd without the swagger, the Black Crowes with more depth and less hick. And sometimes, like on the closing track, "Arizona," they let the music teem over with gorgeous layers and a patient unveiling structure that no textbook backwoods band would dare attempt.
Kings of Leon has the attitudinal strut of country music but the hooks of modern rock. And the record takes its time to unfold. The Followill brothers don't rush anything here, and it ultimately makes the album that much more rewarding. It's contemplative and meditative; it's vintage (in a good way); it's nighttime driving music. The fathers of rock must be proud.