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REVIEW: Kings of Leon, 'Come Around Sundown'
At first, they were a roadside attraction, weird America, three shaggy sons (and a nephew) of a Tennessee preacher: reverent but rebellious, brimstone-covered but dreaming of glitter. Cue up the first album by the Kings of Leon, 2003's Youth and Young Manhood, and you'll hear lead singer Caleb Followill deliver his deviant lines in a strained, backwoods whine, the anti-frontman, the reluctant rock star. That early stuff wasn't always easy to listen to, but it was always interesting, four dudes ditching the Lord's bounty for a li'l taste of forbidden fruit.
Now skip ahead five years — or right around the time the Kings are opening for U2, dating supermodels, partying hard and selling 6 million copies of fourth album Only by the Night. Big booming hits Sex on Fire and Use Somebody are short on Southern accents, heavy on isolated arena-rattling riffs; the choruses are clear, soaring. KoL is now as mainstream as Bono & Co. — and yet, in interviews, the tired, disillusioned boys openly long for home, for a time when they weren't so famous, so big.
So what comes next? Would the band embrace the label of "the next U2" or instead wander back (at least musically, thematically) to the backwoods comforts of the Volunteer State?
The just-released Come Around Sundown is at times a big lumbering rock beast, stuffed with suitably pained prom-night ballads (The Face is absolutely haunting with its trembling guitar lines courtesy of underrated lead picker Matthew Followill) and a crescendoing future show-closer in over-the-top first single Radioactive.
Reminiscent at times of the prickly beauty of U2's Unforgettable Fire, the record is hit-packed and user-friendly, produced by Angelo Petraglia and Jacquire King with clean, loud oomph.
But for all the album's polish (and it's just as slick and catchy as Only by the Night), there are also significant changes at hand.
Whereas the boys once had a taste for danger and decadence, the mood here is decidedly romantic, relatively gentle — the Followills trying to save a paramour rather than score with one.
The chiming, flirty Birthday, a Friday-night party song with a young, sexy brain, will be just as popular with women as it is with dudes: Walking her home with the grassy field / Fallin' and laughin' at the drinks we spill / Just one of those nights that I had to share / She's in a daze, without a care.
The album is also a quasi-country family reunion. The rustic Back Down South is as gentle, lovely and rural a song as the Kings have done, and for the first time in a long time, home trumps Hollywood. The album closes with the contemplative twilight drive of Pickup Truck, the lyrics caked in mud and memory.
Don't be fooled when the Kings go No. 1 on the charts and sell out stadiums all over the world. The Followills have seen the light (again). For all of Radioactive's great rock-god glory, the song itself, tinged with gospel, is about squinting through the seductive glare of fame and rediscovering what's important in life. As Caleb sings in a voice yearning for yesteryear: It's in the water / It's where you came from.
'Suspicious' Mind Blower: Cirque gives the King a modern makeover
A few years ago, Cirque du Soleil, known for its tumbling, vaguely creepy clowns, remixed, reworked and reimagined the sounds and vision of the Fab Four, making the Beatles tribute Love a Las Vegas phenomenon. So it makes sense that Cirque would embrace and enliven the legacy of another iconic act, this one much closer to the neon spirit of Sin City.
Viva Elvis is now hip-shakin' at the Aria Resort & Casino at CityCenter. I haven't seen the show, but I've heard the soundtrack. It's filled with overt beats and metallic flourish — Heartbreak Hotel now plays like something by AC/DC — yet the music retains the scope, magnitude and hunka-hunka jumpsuit fury of the King. Of course, Presley's voice is front and center and still has the incandescent power to thrill. TCB, baby!
My favorite new cut is Suspicious Minds as retooled by Brendan O'Brien, the preferred producer of Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen. You can tell he's a fan; you can tell he's in delicious awe of Elvis, too. In reworking E's pained portrait of a shaky love affair, O'Brien sounds more like U2 knob-twiddler Daniel Lanois, going for an epic, end-credit feel with a frantic guitar part that still gives me goose bumps 20 listens later. The Viva Elvis soundtrack comes out Nov. 9. To hear Suspicious Minds, go to Pop Life online at tampabay.com/blogs/poplife.