Kings of Leon - Mechanical Bull

Genre play is rough; especially when your concern is not only creating a decent record but selling records and more consequentially, selling concert tickets. Kings of Leon never had to worry about that shit in the numbers they are dealing with these days. Kings of Leon are a southern rock band who are one of the annoying bands that have flown their ship under the moniker of the term 'garage rock'. Call me a traditionalist, but I really don’t like the term that much, never have. The term originally was used to refer to bands like The Animals and The Kingsmen. Later it would be used to give a name to anything that was too aggressive to be rock and roll but unclassifiable with the terms available to be anything else, groups like The Stooges or even The Kinks, as a lazy way to flop groups of records together in record shops. These days the term gets used on anything that sounds even slightly different than your run of the mill Creed-type rock band, 'alt-rock' 90s-esque styled band, or otherwise acceptable radio-friendly rock group. Oh, it’s bluesy? It has guitar more intricate than basic chords and sounds lo-fi? Garage rock! But really? Fuck off, The Black Keys, The Strokes and Kings of Leon do not record in a garage, as far as I’m aware.

Cheesy jokes aside, Kings of Leon started out with these pretty-okay kind of southern rock albums that were liked by certain crowds for certain reasons, if you know what I mean. But they peaked pretty early with Aha Shake Heartbreak which in itself is a fairly flawed record. Times were pretty hard for the Kings. The three brothers, one cousin band were facing some serious financial issues after three fairly unwell received albums. While they charted respectively and received pretty decent fanfare in the UK, it’s a tough time to be a musician as a career and the Kings of Leon are no exception to that unfortunate reality. But they handled it piss-poorly. I hate the term 'selling out' but it’s hard to think of something else to call it. You can hide it behind euphemisms and terms like 'stylistically changing directions' or 'trying new things' but when a band 360s and abandons their niche for a more 'stadium-rock feel' we all know what that means; it’s not exactly a new story. 

Kings of Leon ditched their producer the legendary Ethan Johns and released Only by the Night a less southern, more alternative rock album with definite 'stadium' quality about it. And it worked, their records flew off the theoretical shelves of iTunes and Amazon and their radio hits spread like the plague all over the place. Anyone who lived through 2008 knows it was practically impossible to turn on the radio without hearing “Sex on Fire” or “Use Somebody”. Their massive success helped the Kings become household names, sort of. They had a public dispute with Ryan Murphy over his show Glee using one of their tunes and had a well glossed praising article from Rolling Stone around the same time. They were big and doing well! I mean, unless you count musical integrity or putting out good records as doing well. But that’s just like, my opinion, man. 

In 2010, Kings of Leon attempted to please their battalions of new fans and radio demand for new music with their next record Come Around Sundown but were unfortunately faced with what I like to refer to as 'Mumford & Sons' syndrome. 'But Johnny,' you ask. 'What is Mumford & Sons syndrome?!' I’m going to tell you all about it. Mumford and Sons had a few hits on their beloved album Sigh No More and were praised for their unique and not-like-all-the-Kings-of-Leon-and-Pearl-Jam-esque band’s sound they had going. They were folky and to your average radio-friendly listener, pretty unique! But they’re a one-trick pony and sure enough with their next album all the singles sound exactly like their predecessors and while they chart well and get played a lot it’s like you’re listening to the same shtick again. 

Think one-hit wonders but more focused on a specific sound or style than on a singular hit tune. So that album flopped right? Of course not, it sold really well, got nominated for a Grammy and produced solid stadium anthems for the band to continue touring for the satisfaction of their fans and their lavishly increasing wallets. But now we’re in recent years and things are changing once again. We’re seeing all these 'indie' bands charting and making the big money. Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire and Mumford & Sons are the Kings of Leon of the last few years. And these bands didn’t even change their style! How can a band so cantered in its being what WAS the popular radio acceptable music continue to do what it does AND make money? Well the 90s bands did okay. I mean, bands like Lifehouse, Our Lady Peace, Blues Traveler, hell even Counting Crows. They maintained themselves, outlasted their adversaries and continue putting our records that they are proud of. They enjoyed their moment in the spotlight because the public for, whatever reason at the time, embraced their style and their sound and eventually moved on from it. They continue on with lesser success and financially it’s rougher, but that’s okay because it’s about the art and the love of the music. They do it for the fans, for the tunes, for the love of it, right? I mean that’s an option. Or there’s always you know the classic 'going back to our roots' move. That’s golden. For a band that has already dramatically altered their sound to SELL records, there’s really not too much justification in continuing that sound onward for any sort of integrity or credibility. 

I’ve been pretty harsh here but please understand I don’t completely disagree with all of Kings of Leon’s choices. They have families they have to feed, rent, and expenses. I’m all for trying to sell as many as records as possible and being a huge massive stadium rock band. But in the words of Clement and La Frenais, surely it’s not what you do; it’s the way that you do it. So if Kings of Leon can back up justifying this 'our old southern style' as more than just a ploy to make a load of money, or even if it IS that, if at least the album is good, all can be forgiven. But alas poor Yorick! It was not to be. Mechanical Bull is a well-intentioned mess. 

Their earlier-album sound is not really here that much and the songs it is noticeable on are pretty horrendous, despite what Spin or Rolling Stone magazine might meekly attempt to call refreshing. It’s refreshing in that there’s nobody else on radio really with a southern rock flair, but that’s no excuse for its lacklustre qualities. “Coming BackAgain” is pretty much up a straight-up Pearl Jam rip off. Seriously, listen to their second to most recent album and tell me that song is not lick-for-lick the same shit. The lead-off single from the record “Supersoaker” is pretty meh. There’s nothing about it that’s memorable in anyway and sounds so pathetically like it’s trying to recapture some of that “Use Somebody” glory that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to. Songs like “Rock City” and “Wait For Me” are listenable and decent tunes but it’s like searching for fine gems in a bag of rock candy, it’s just really disheartening. This week, the Kings released a third single from the record, that of “Temple” which is a really smart move on their part, it’s a really catchy song that is shamelessly similar to their past radio hits. It’s catchy and danceable too. I guarantee the radio success of this song; it’s going to be on some Rolling Stone best-of 2013 list I’m telling you now. It’s the best this album has to offer by far and that’s not saying very much. Kings of Leon are definitely trying hard here but the sex just isn’t on fire with this one. Or, if it is, it’s because this album is giving you a venereal disease. Better get that checked out. 
~Johnny Hoel 


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Discovery: Kings of Leon - Mechanical Bull
Kings of Leon - Mechanical Bull
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