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Kings of Leon are back on the “Mechanical Bull”

Staff Writer
Austin 360

By Michael Corcoran

Editor’s note: This article was originally published October 2, 2013

Oh, how we feel about Kings of Leon. Really tight and powerful four-piece rock band with a terrific singer. Good songs. No sense of humor whatsoever.

This is why Kings of Leon are reviled in some quarters. All the truly great rock bands have some wit, some off-stage charm, maybe an air of mystery, but these sons of a Pentecostal preacher and their cousin don’t seem like they’d even be fun to hang out with. A sin any true rock fan can’t forgive.

So the tightly-wound kings of Nashville have released a new album on the eve of their appearances at ACL Fest that I know I’m too cool to like, but I can’t stop listening to it. Go to Spotify right now and double click on “Temple.” I’ll wait. You’ll hear a band bringing sweetness and adventure to classic rock band simplicity in a way that’s becoming extinct.

On the first couple listens, “Mechanical Bull” sounds like it was made to give KoL four more songs to play in concert. Lead off track “Supersoaker,” with its blurred right hand of rhythm, is the perfect concert opener- a new song that adds sheets of noise to the old melodic rock engine purr. You can imagine “Family Tree,” with it lead bass line and kinda dumb chorus, setting up the furious sprint down the home stretch of a two hour sweatathon.

But something happens when you get to about the third listen. The nothing songs become something. As always, Caleb Followill’s voice is the salesman, but on this album he puts you in a car that just feels right. You can see what the Leon Kings are doing on every song of “Mechanical Bull,” but that doesn’t throw you off. Will say that the LP doesn’t finish as strongly as it starts, so the thing about KoL being easily satisfied with itself seems to stay true. (Nobody stepped in to say “On the Chin” has no place here?) But Tom Petty hasn’t made a record this good since “Full Moon Fever” 25 years ago and he’s a god. If they were half as cool, Kings of Leon would be twice as big.

But the Followill band been a little “off” since the beginning, when Nashville tried to make them into a boy band and they got guitars and attitudes to complete the disguise. Not many people know this, but the young Kings played at around noon on the second year of ACL Fest. It was about a month after their debut LP “Youth and Young Manhood” came out to stretching yawns in the U.S. and pandemonium in the U.K.

I got them that first ACL gig. I was in the office of the guy who books the fest and he got off the phone cursing. Some up-and-coming band had just dropped out. “You should book Kings of Leon,” said I. Loved their EP “Holy Roller Novocaine” and especially the song “California Waiting.” Turned out their agent had been pitching them to ACL and they were booked before I left with what I came for, which was probably some lame quote about why it was important to add Friday, making ACL a three-day fest.

I ended up not going to that set I “booked.” “Youth” had come out and the new version of “California Waiting” told me this band knew absolutely nothing about rock n’ roll. They butchered their own song, their best song, and I figured I was done with them.

Then, in 2007, right before the release of “Because of the Times,” KoL played the Spin party during SXSW and just blew the doors open. Maybe I was a little overserved- good chance of that- but that set made me fall in love again at a time and place- Friday afternoon at SXSW- where I’ve traditionally just had enough of all that rock band crap. It was an industry party, but the usually-jaded crowd was pressed up to the front of the stage begging for it and the Kings made hair explode. To this day, that’s the best set I’ve ever seen at Stubb’s.

I thought they had peaked with “Only By the Night,” the 2008 album that finally made them huge in their home country with “Use Somebody” and “Sex On Fire.” The next album “Come Around Sundown” seemed to prove this theory, as the band was running out of ways to say what they never really had to say. (It was the way they said it.) “Sundown” had some good tunes, but reeked of formula. It was the kind of album the label screams for, then sits on.

That was three years ago, during which time KoL went from the only good band on pop radio, to cheesy tabloid fodder. There was a drunken show in Dallas and a canceled tour. And the pigeon incident brought more bad press, but, even more significantly, cast the Kings as spoiled rock stars. The D-bag thing wrapped around everything they did. Kings of Leon weren’t hip anymore, if they ever were.

But what a rock n’ roll band! Put them up against anybody playing today. “Mechanical Bull” sounds like they needed the break that we needed, too. It’s a band that’s got it down to a science, but that science is biology. Something’s moving here.

I won’t forget how Kings of Leon first thrilled me, then broke my heart. But it’s five a.m. and I can’t sleep and “Mechanical Bull” makes me not want to. This is what I love, the stuff that starts with Chuck Berry and the Beatles and ends inside the head of someone who can really sing. The way they fall in and play their parts as if they’re writing their own song. It’s not all great, but this is what I need.

Kings of Leon play Saturdays at 8 p.m. on the Samsung Galaxy stage.