Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Against The Grain: Subtle Shifts from Kings of Leon and Low

When I interviewed Kings of Leon at Glastonbury 2003, they proved themselves tedious and frustrating interviewees. Barely able to get more than cursory one word answers out of them, I concluded that they probably had little of interest to say anyway. Admittedly, this probably was not helped by the fact that I was directed to limit my questioning to the festival (by my people not theirs!), but I couldn’t escape the view that they set out deliberately to obfuscate their unwitting and inexperienced interrogator. Their set, extraordinarily second only to the headliners (I think it was Oasis that night), did little more to convince me of their value. Debuting new material, but with little passion or conviction, they sounded tired, and already bored with that terribly unpleasant business of playing music to over 100,000 people.

Much has happened in the intervening years to force me into changing my mind. The album that followed that perfunctory Glastonbury set (‘Aha Shake Heartbreak’) turned out to be a vast improvement on their debut, channelling the spirit of Southern country rock with an electric charge drawn straight from the blues. The focus became less on the media spin (their supposed family status, their preacher father, the mysterious Angelo, who may or may not be the creative force behind the band) and more on the kinetic music they were creating, at last justifying the blitz of hype.

Again produced by Ethan Johns (also responsible for Ryan Adams’ ‘Heartbreaker’ among other substantial works) and the aforementioned Angelo, ‘Because of the Times’, poor grammar of the title notwithstanding, is another big step forward. The group have succeeded here in creating a big rock album, inspired as much by The Pixies as Led Zeppelin or Lynyrd Skynyrd, that sounds organic and fresh whilst remaining steeped in the rich history of rock and roll.

Real attention has been paid to the sound of this record. Although it’s still based firmly on a raw, ‘live band’ template, there’s plenty of attention to detail in the arrangements. Guitar lines are carefully interwoven, and the bulk of the songs are built on the sturdy foundations of Jared and Nathan Followill’s crisp basslines and strangely funky drumming. Also used to its full capacity as an instrument is the gritty voice of Caleb Followill which, increasingly versatile in its impact, ranges from the sincerely affecting to the caustic and visceral. Even though his lyrics sometimes seem like a string of bizarre non-sequiturs, he manages to twist the words into powerful and compelling vignettes.

There’s also a surprising level of diversity in the music, and a handful of the songs require a few listens before they really take root. There’s the slow-burning epic opener ‘Knocked Up’, which along with the crunching single ‘On Call’ and ‘Trunk’ deploys atmospherics effectively. ‘Knocked Up’ also veers quite brilliantly between it’s minimal, brooding verses and its powerful, extrovert choruses. Perhaps most unexpected of all is the deliciously groovy ‘My Party’, which quite comfortably beats the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys at their own wiry, angular game. The explosive ‘Charmer’ is a direct hotline to The Pixies’ ‘Debaser’, although it comes across as homage rather than copycat plagiarism. The superbly titled ‘McFearless’ is both relentless and compelling.

Lyrically, Caleb still devises some peculiar and occasionally uncomfortable metaphors (I particularly like ‘Girl, you’re wanted like a wanted man’ and ‘she shakes like the morning railway’) – perhaps he’s still trying to be a little too clever. When he’s direct, the results are much better. ‘True Love Way’ is a blistering account of frustrated lust (‘She’s a cold one and it hurts me so/ It’s a dark path and a heavy toll’), and, by way of contrast, the protagonist of ‘Black Thumbnail’, whilst deeply affected by beauty, seems afraid of love (‘my cold cold sailor heart says get on your way/I ain’t too proud to say but that’s how I’m made/I’ll be that person til my dying day/I try so awful hard but I can’t change’). Best of all is ‘Knocked Up’ which, as many other commentators have observed, seems like the masculine counterpart to Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’, with its young lovers determined to keep their child.

There certainly seems to be much more depth here than on the previous albums, both lyrically and musically. KoL seem to be that rare breed of band – in an era where the earth shattering debut album seems to be all or nothing, and where time is most definitely not on a band’s side, they are slowly maturing and coming good.

Perhaps only the most ardent of Low fans will jump for joy at the prospect of yet another album from this most regular and dependable of bands. Like its predecessor (‘The Great Destroyer’), ‘Drums and Guns’ comes with plenty of talk of a change in direction. The last album actually heralded nothing of the sort, it was simply a heavier, louder take on the same furrow Low have been ploughing for years. ‘Drums and Guns’ arguably offers much more in the way of surprises. Whilst it retains the key elements of Low’s trademark sound – the stark minimalism, the stately tempos and the mellifluous harmonies from Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker (it’s hard to think of two other voices in the contemporary pop landscape that connect so beautifully with each other)- it also adds striking new elements . There are delicate electronic percussion interventions, ambient sound, and a variety of keyboards that shift the emphasis away from rudimentary beaten toms and strumming guitars.

‘Drums and Guns’ is certainly a grower, which coming from a group that is slow burning at the best of times may not exactly be a selling point. The majority of Low albums do have some moments of real immediacy though – a ‘Just Like Christmas’, ‘Dinosaur Act’ or ‘That’s How You Sing Amazing Grace’, for instance. There’s nothing remotely comparable here. It’s not helped by the fact that it starts terribly, with ‘Pretty People’ pitting Sparhawk and Parker against a rather uninteresting backdrop of mundane droning feedback. ‘All the soldiers are gonna die/All the little babes, they’re all gonna die’ they sing, rather portentously, suggesting that ‘Drums and Guns’ will wear its theme of a violent and corrupt world rather obviously on its sleeve (the inlay even features arty photographs of, well, drums…and guns).

Mercifully, things get a lot better very quickly. ‘Belarus’ and ‘Breaker’ are two of Low’s quirkiest tracks to date, and given that the entire album is helmed by Dave Fridmann (who has certainly been guilty of superficiality in some of his previous productions), it’s remarkable how subtle and effective the electronics are here. They add an additional layer of mystery and intrigue to this sombre and reflective music. ‘Dragonfly’ is elegant and haunting, as the group so often are. The work that these tracks most remind me of is REM’s criminally underrated ‘Up’, where the band found a new texture and context for their melodic and harmonic sensibilities. The arrival of new bassist Matt Livingston also seems to have heralded a greater reliance on lower tones and pulsating bass lines.

The two most striking tracks are ‘Always Fade’ and ‘Hatchet’, not least because they represent the closest this defiantly slow group has ever come to producing something uptempo. The latter, with its punctuating guitar figures, brazenly melodic vocals and stuttering beat even reminds me a little of Hot Chip circa ‘Coming on Strong’.

Although there is a somewhat murky period after the shock of ‘Hatchet’ (where individual songs do seem to blur into one a little) the album does coalesce both thematically and musically as it progresses. What emerges by the superb conclusion (‘Murderer’ and ‘Violent Past’ are both album highlights) is a sinister, downbeat and very pessimistic world view, both personal and political. ‘Murderer’ is a particularly striking song in the current climate, with its protagonist offering one last service to God ‘before I go’, suggesting ‘you may need a murderer to do your dirty work’. It’s powerful and edgy.

This album seems to have divided opinion as to whether it’s one of the group’s more challenging or accessible ventures, which is odd, given that it clearly can’t be both. I feel it’s comfortably the most difficult of their recent albums, and probably closer in spirit to ‘Trust’ than ‘Secret Name’ or ‘Things We Lost in the Fire’. It is frequently audacious though, where Low albums tend to stick to their very particular comfort zone. They are now finding new ways to sustain a long-term musical career, and ‘Drums and Guns’ is characterised by a new boldness and confrontational vision.

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