Thursday, December 30, 2010

Youth and Young Manhood Review

Young kings circa 2003. Might as well be 1973.
I remember first hearing the Kings of Leon while scrolling through the contents of a friend's iPod. (Remember those? The one's with a scroll-wheel? It made the most delightful clicking sound as you wound your way through a list.) The song I heard was none other than Happy Alone off their first full-length album Youth and Young Manhood. In my youthful impatience, I listened to the first few seconds and, deciding I knew what I was in for, flipped to another song before the vocals kicked in. That simple piece of impatience cost me untold cool points as I am just now getting into the band when they are too popular to be considered cool.

When next I was exposed to the Kings of Leon, I was in Botanica in New York City with a friend. Sex on Fire flopped into the ambient rotation and a bevy of artsy-depressive beauties a few tables down shrieked. The pragmatic libido in yours truly made mental note of the song and later that night, drunken and alone, I looked up the tune on Youtube. I wasn't blown away and shook my head at the newest generation of artsy-depressive weirdos now populating my favorite watering holes south of Houston.

But something about that song tugged at me. It clung to my ribs like a sloth-child and rattled around my brain when there was naught else to occupy those cavernous environs. (Size doesn't matter's the motion in the ocean.) What was it? Granted, the song has a hook a mile wide. However, this clinging resonance didn't feel like a hook. It took a few days for me to realize that it was the voice of the lead singer. I went back to my Youtube, did some serious acoustic research, and was soon smitten by the Kings of Leon.

He might be killing his vocal chords but it sounds like heaven.
Caleb Followill's voice is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon. It aches, it moans, it makes your skin crawl and your soul jump. And it is nowhere more awe-inspiring than on Youth and Young Manhood. It ranges from feral screams to soothing lullabies. And, unlike their more recent offerings which use production tricks and polish to mute the raw emotion (and, it must be said, sell a billion-trillion albums), Youth and Young Manhood's beauty is in its inexperience. The band was just getting their feet under them. Young musicians were just learning to master their instruments and reasonable budgets were limiting the amounts of dross they could pile onto their recordings.

Look no further than Dusty for a striking example of how an under-produced sound can bring out the emotional range of Caleb's voice. I can feel the sawdust under my feet and sunset on my cheeks listening to this song. It exudes the effortless ease of some of The Rolling Stones' best blues tracks without sounding derivative. (Granted, the blues genre in general never seems to sound derivative despite following one of the most lockstep chord progressions in the history of modern music.) The musical performance on Dusty does a wonderful job of complimenting the easy-going feel and natural distortion in Caleb's voice. The chunky guitar solo in the middle followed by Caleb's caterwauling and the band's occasional whoops puts the listener right there with them. Hard though it may be to believe now, this band was once one of the most accessible out there.
Hip kings. Circa 2009. Might as well be 1984.

Or listen to the ebb and flow of Trani's teasing crescendos. Despite the rising power, this young band has the poise and comfort to never rush ahead of themselves. And don't even get me started on the way Caleb's voice cracks after the second middle 8th. Their enjoyment of their own sound is infectious and wholly justified. To be armed with this much talent and (dare I say it? Screw you Train, I'll say it. You bastards aren't going to steal this word from us.) soul must be a heady experience but these early tracks balance their gravitas with humor, inexperience, and most importantly, fun.

For more up-tempo rocking, be sure to check out Spiral Staircase and Joe's Head which owes as much to The Allman Brothers as it does to The Rolling Stones. Or if its an airy melancholy you're looking for, tune into Talihin Sky. It feels at once like you are rolling through the country and simultaneously going nowhere.

Or better yet, purchase the whole album. It is a phenomenal freshman effort by a band which has gone on to more mainstream and lucrative endeavors. Judged solely on this album, The Kings of Leon are more than entitled to all the money-grubbing and fame-chasing they want. I only wish I had given them five seconds more of a chance back in 2003.


  1. Do you like well recorded, superbly musically framed, naked emotion?
    Check out "Praise and Blame" by Tom Jones. Then contrast false emotion by Tom Jones like "Thunderball".
    If that doesn't give you hope for human expression in the post record company world, you ain't got no imagination.

  2. Well met. Last I checked with our boy Tom, he was the inspiration for The Fresh Prince's Carlton at best.

    But this ( is certainly a refreshing change of pace.