"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Because of the Times

BMG Japan, 2,548 yen

There is not a great variety of sounds or musical styles on the new Kings of Leon album, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Followill clan work with their limited sonic palette in much the same way photographer Robert Capa worked with black and white. Because of the Times, their third album, shows them at their most versatile yet, but there is still little to differentiate one broken-hearted, buzzing power-chord anthem from another.

As always, Caleb Followill howls, moans and declaims in throaty splendor about an array of wicked women who have steered their men wrong while his cousin Matthew picks out distorted, ringing repetitive riffs reminiscent of a southern-fried version of the Edge, all backed by the thrashing drums of brother Nathan and the often sinister basslines of brother Jared.

The centerpiece of Because of the Times --named for an evangelical conference the brothers attended annually with their itinerant preacher father when they were growing up--is the lead-off track, "Knocked Up," an atmospheric seven-minute stunner about a couple of rebellious teens determined to escape the confines of their small town in a Cadillac, have their baby and live happily ever after no matter whose body they have to step over to do so--James Dean would star in the movie. Menace and youthful angst hang heavy in the air on this and most of the other tracks, reaching almost Jim Morrison-esque dramatic heights on "Trunk"--though Caleb's rough-and-ready emoting is unlikely to be mistaken for Morrison's coiled and oiled Brechtian theatrics.

If the howling, bluesy trailer-park gothic of "Black Thumbnail" and the Red Hot Chili Peppers-meets-U2 insistence of "My Party" manage to get some radio airplay, the Kings of Leon may be the next big thing.


Grand National

Warner, 2,580 yen

If the Kings of Leon present a series of gritty black and white snapshots of young white American male macho angst, the John Butler Trio lay the flipside on us with a Technicolor touchy-feely grab-bag of an album that mixes reggae and funk rhythms with hard-rock and blues sensibilities, folk instrumentation and hippie-trippy lyrics put to hip-hop cadences. The American-born, Australian-raised Butler made his mark with 2003's Sunrise Over Sea, an independent release that debuted at No. 1 on the album charts in Australia.

Grand National is in the same vein as Sunrise Over Sea, but the influx of major label money into the recording process has allowed Butler to branch out even further in term of arrangement, adding string sections ("Caroline") and brass bands ("Gov did Nothing") to his already potent mix of searing electric slide guitar, acoustic six and 11-string guitars, banjo and harmonica, backed by drummer Michael Barker and bassist Shannon Birchall.

Major label support has not blunted Butler's socially conscious approach to songwriting, with songs like "Used to Get High" decrying the demons of fast food, drugs, neo-conservatism and political apathy all at one go. "Good Excuse" has the counter-culture would-be guru delivering a wake-up slap to sullen, self-absorbed, video game-obsessed teens, urging them to "Go take a step outside, see what's shakin' in the real world."

While Butler's lyrics may lack subtlety, his heartfelt playing more than makes up with numerous extended slide-guitar solos and even some easy-skanking ukulele on "Groovin' Slowly."

(Apr. 28, 2007)

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