Kings of Leon

Youth & Young Manhood (RCA)

Unlike standard retro-rockers bent on filling clubs with rehashed vintage fashion, the three Followill brothers and one Followill cousin are as real as the shaggy hair on their heads. The Kings of Leon are fluent in several styles of circa-1970 rock. These influences go from their sleeves into the pot, and only the cream rises.

The hard jangle raises the VU meter to New York art-scene levels but avoids the monotony of everyone's favorite Warhol protegés. Hints of hand-clapping Detroit proto-punk accompany tales of junkie streetwalkers and jilted lovers. Bluesy garage pays homage to both Morrisons, Van and Jim. The Brit-pop crowd will surely latch onto the tunefulness. And the rock, drunk on backwoods moonshine, will appease the stoner crowd. It's dirty and dangerous, sly and self-assured. Yet singer Caleb Followill lacks the snottiness to be sleazy. He gives the impression of a laid-back predator content to set the trap and wait. His ill intentions are made perfectly clear, with no apologies: "I'm gonna tangle my face hair/It's gonna tickle your daughter/3 o'clock in the morning/They all cry to me/I'll be prancing around in my high heels/And your cherry-red lipstick." The conviction in his mature, well-used voice is clear. Where the singing is gritty, words are bounced deftly around the songs. These unpredictable but melodic vocals are exceptionally inventive.

Caleb receives fraternal support in indulgently wicked bass lines from brother Jared and nasty guitar work from cousin Matthew. Nathan Followill drums like W.S. Holland on a runaway train. The blood relation is responsible for the boys' ability to play well together, and their Pentecostal upbringing accounts for the fire. Together they strut, stroll and eventually whip the music into a religious fervor. Masterfully aerating it with changing speeds, the Kings ensure a variety -- so much so that the end of "Happy Alone" is as far from its beginning as a road trip on I-40 that begins in Raleigh and ends in Barstow. It's a cohesive journey that explores subtleties and extremes. When "Joe's Head" allows the music to become delicate, Caleb delivers a juxtaposed violent tale of revenge, while on "Dusty," a track that carries on the tradition of dark country folk in 6/8 time, there are lonesome roads that lead to no good end for innocent girls. Then, without warning, one of those dreaded hidden tracks pop up to wake you up, but the Floyd Cramer-inspired lullaby is worthwhile and should be canonized into the album proper.

From the commercialization of thrift-store fashion to the resurgence of garage rock, culture is looking back for inspiration. These days the term "burnout" applies as much to punk as it does to hippie jam bands. Youth & Young Manhood seamlessly culls the best elements of the music this group loves. And by ignoring that sentimental parental voice preaching about the way things were, it avoids bell-bottomed nostalgia. The Kings of Leon succeed in cutting a path into the past without shutting out the future.

 
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