Who are the Kings of Leon, anyway? Shouldn't we know by now?
In 2003, they were the buzz band of the year, with so much going for them out of the gate -- an alluring, muddy debut CD ("Youth and Young Manhood"), a rich biography full of Pentecostalism, marijuana and rock 'n' roll rebellion, irresistible shyness and bunches of bushy beards to hide behind. They were the swampy Strokes, and it seemed Southern rock might rise again.
KINGS OF LEON
• 7:30 p.m. Saturday
• First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, 19100 S. Ridgeland, Tinley Park
• Tickets, $36.50-$61.50
But the 2004 follow-up was weak, filtered Brit-pop. Just don't tell the British. Three singles charted in the U.K., setting a European trend of hits for the band and securing it an opening slot on U2's tour that year. Each successive CD has taken a new turn, hanging different styles and sounds on the band's core bog boogie -- fishing for some kind of authenticity they seem to think they haven't shown us yet. They went prog-rock on "Because of the Times" (2007). They tried to copy The Edge on "Only by the Night" (2008). Small wonder critics (myself included) began doubting the sincerity and individualism we thought we had heard on that first go-round.
Talk to the Followills today -- the band is three brothers (singer Caleb Followill, drummer Nathan Followill and bassist Jared Followill) and a cousin (Matthew Followill) -- and you hear musicians who still sound unsure of who they are and are eager to tamp down our expectations of their music.
"I just hope that everyone that comes to see us, they realize that we are still young and we're still trying to find ourselves as people, as a band, and I don't want people's expectations to get too high," Caleb said in a recent teleconference with national media. "We are still learning as a band and growing as a band and, hell, if we are playing arenas, you know, five years from now or three years from now or two, whatever, it will be -- we'll be thrilled but, you know, just so long as we don't have to do anything in the process to make us feel like we've gone too far, you know?"
What's too far, after all? Four polarizing albums, with platinum sales? The love-to-hate-it, rip-roaring but silly single "Sex on Fire"? Touring with U2? Having one of their songs covered by Nick Jonas? Making a remix album already (though the band says they've shelved that project for now)?
Kings of Leon just finished tracking a fifth record, which may see release by year's end. Fans panicked and critics cackled a few months ago when Internet rumors described the new songs as "fun" and "beachy."
"Sorry, the person that said that was Nathan, and we haven't even let him hear the album yet, so he has no idea," said a clearly perturbed Caleb. "No, there are definitely times when it's very tropical and beachy, but there is always that dark chord in there that makes it Kings of Leon."
But then he talks about the album featuring fiddle and lap steel and trumpets, all the while swearing, "We are getting closer to what it is that we want to do as a band." Whatever untried style is left must be the real Kings of Leon.
Still, the search for self is selling some records.
"It's definitely connecting with the mainstream audience more so than we ever thought that our music would," Caleb said. "Some bands might look at that as a negative thing, but we see it as a very positive thing, and the fact that now we have a wider audience and a lot more people's attention, I think now the real test is to see if they want to continue on the journey with us and go where we want to go musically."
Early on, the band even got the Chrissie Hynde stamp of approval. "I would crawl over broken glass to see Kings of Leon," she told Billboard in 2006.
"We were actually friends with her for a long time, when we first started and we went over to the U.K. the first couple of times," Jared said. Then he recalled the first time Kings of Leon tried on someone else's style. "We were very influenced by Pretenders and stuff like that. I remember when we made our first EP, and we listened to a Pretenders song to get that tone and try to copy that."
He likes it, though, that other young bands are covering Kings of Leon.
"We did the festival circuit four or five years ago and literally every single band we played with covered 'Seven Nation Army,'" Jared said. "It just kind of comes with the territory of having a bigger song. You kind of just expect it. I mean, I doubt there are too many underground indie bands who are playing that song in a club in Brooklyn, but I don't know."