Thursday, September 3, 2009

#119. 'I'll be in the lobby drinking for two'

Kings of Leon "The Bucket"

Did anyone anticipate Kings of Leon becoming the biggest rock band in America at any point in their career? Their ascending to something along those lines late last year was one of my major double takes, not because I didn't think they were somewhat deserving of it but more because it came out of nowhere. Far as I remembered the only time they'd been talked about at all in terms of mainstream attention was when they were being lumped in with the garage rock revival at the release of their first album. They were pretty huge on the UK, but until "Sex on Fire" broke out last summer their only chart placement in the States was a paltry #23 on the modern rock chart for "The Bucket" in 2004. So to see the band go from mainstream non-entities to top 5 pop hitmakers in the span of five years was a bit discombobulating.

So what is it that changed? Was it the band's slow crawl away from southern rock-influenced alternative to the loving arms of arena rock? Was the pop landscape just devoid of guitar based music with mass appeal and they were the right band at the right time? I'm thinking it's more of the latter, but the former certainly helped. Compare "The Bucket" and "Use Somebody" and it's obvious which one was gonna be a top 5 pop hit in the states (not entirely undeservedly either) regardless of timing. "Use Somebody" is grandiose, imposing and universally resonant. "The Bucket" is a better song for my money, but it's also a smaller, more intimate number that's firmly rooted in southern rock in a way that's not idiotic enough to appeal to the masses (yes that's a dig at "All Summer Long" and it probably won't be the last one I get in here.) I can't say much against the evolutionary track the band took, they're wearing the arena rock sheen quite well all told, but part of me wishes that they'd go back to making this type of song more often.

The key here is that when Kings of Leon are wearing their southern roots on their sleeve they stand out a lot more. I may not have enjoyed Youth and Young Manhood all that much, but it definitely carved a niche for the band that set them apart from the scene they got lumped in with for whatever reason. Aha Shake Heartbreak was more interesting in that it was just as indebted to R. E. M. as it was to Skynyrd et al, like the band was trying to present all facets of rock music made in the south in their sound. It doesn't always work, but "The Bucket" gets the synthesis just right. The guitar interplay is reminiscent of Skynyrd without the soloing, but the tone is Peter Buck jangle all the way, just applied to chords instead of arpeggios. The opening, chiming guitar riff is one of those little bits that instantly made my ears perk up, it was distinctive yet familiar I guess. The reference points were there plain as day but it was such an ear-catching riff that I didn't mind. Of course, it only lasts for about ten seconds before the song's main riff is layered over it, and note that the chimey riff is still there pretty much all through the song just never at the forefront, and the song begins in earnest.

The intimacy I referred to earlier comes from the fact that, at its heart, this sounds like the sort of thing you'd hear a particularly good bar band playing in their set. It's not a slave to production, not overly composed or complex, just a plain good song that doesn't over reach or under perform. There's the two guitar riffs, one chimey and one a bit more forceful and gruff, drumming that's neither too simple or needlessly show-offy and a vocal melody that's not groundbreaking but affecting none the less. Caleb Followill's vocal style at this point is a bit of an acquired taste, drawly and clipped in a slightly unnatural way, but the tone compliments the song in a weird way. None of this sounds all that noteworthy, especially when you factor in the fact that he chorus hook isn't so much about the words as the way Followill's voice bends them into some kind of shape that doesn't match the words on the page (if that makes's late as fuck here,) but the way it comes together makes it work. Sometimes that just happens and there's no real way to explain it. My love for "The Bucket"probably stems from the fact that I can't quite tell why I love it, but when it gets to the 'I'm a-gonna show the way' coda I'm more than ready to hear the whole thing over again.

Coming up tomorrow: Why dark bands make good light music.

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