"Because of the Times," Kings of Leon
I've seen rock 'n' roll's future and its name is -- relax, man, relax. Three albums into their young career, Kings of Leon haven't yet turned out a classic, but "Because of the Times" makes me think they someday might. On their first two albums, 2003's "Youth and Young Manhood" and 2004's "A-Ha Shake Heart Break," brothers Caleb, Jared and Nathan Followill, along with cousin Matthew Followill, worked a groove that blended the streamlined raunch of the early Rolling Stones with the throbbing bass lines and tense guitar interplay of New York indie rock. Not exactly original influences, but the band's raw energy and rhythmic ingenuity made fresh goods from old materials. This time around the boys have extended their sound to include the chiming, echoing grandeur of classic U2 and the ominous throb of post-punk and new wave.
Epic-length album opener "Knocked Up" is a prime example of the band's development, as guitars turn on a dime from delicate sparkle to dirty shrapnel and the rhythm section skitters with enough dance-floor energy to make a DJ jealous. For the third time in their young career, Kings of Leon have taken obvious sonic templates and avoided sounding derivative. How? Maybe it's lead singer and main songwriter Caleb's slurred, Southern howl, which moves from fevered lust on "Charmer" to wounded regret on "Arizona," and in doing so, takes these '80s sonic panoramas places that Bono never could. Or maybe it's just the sound of honest enthusiasm, which can cover up almost any affectation. The album's far from perfect, though -- the repetitive love 'em, leave 'em, miss 'em, need 'em lyrical sentiments make me look forward to the day Caleb matches the wide-eyed creativity of his band's music with less generic lyrics. There are also a couple of tracks (e.g., "Trunk") in which the band's newfound love for moody atmospherics is indulged at the expense of memorable melodies or riffs. Problems like that keep "Times" from being a stone cold winner, but this album is another firm step forward for an exciting young band.
Favorite track: "Black Thumbnail"
"Jarvis," Jarvis Cocker
As the frontman for Britpop stars Pulp, Jarvis Cocker was responsible for some of the snarkiest, sharpest and best music of the '90s. But since his band dissolved, we've only heard him in small doses -- popping up on a Serge Gainsbourg tribute album, singing on an album of sea chanteys, sharing screen time in a Leonard Cohen doc -- but it sounds like Cocker was woodshedding, because "Jarvis," his first solo album, is a gem. (Listen to "Jarvis" tracks "Running the World" and "Don't Let Him Waste Your Time.") Whether it's the sad-sack piano balladry of "I Will Kill Again" (with its uncomfortably familiar lines "log on in the nighttime/ drink a half bottle of wine/ buy a couple of records/ look at naked girls from time to time") or the irresistible cabaret stomp of "Black Magic" -- which cops the "Crimson and Clover's" main riff to wonderful effect -- Cocker has made an album that stands with his best music. He has dropped some of the irony that used to bog down his Pulp work, replacing it with sharper observations and even -- gasp! -- sympathy, both of which make him more believable when playing the roué, as he does on the beautiful "Baby's Coming Back to Me," written for Nancy Sinatra, or the role of a silver-throated, acid-tongued Jeremiah (the line "cunts are running the world" seems to sum up Cocker's worldview). Drawing as it does from the orchestrated gloom-pop of U.K. faves like Scott Walker and Nick Cave, "Jarvis" is often a heavy listen, but when an artist bitches with such seductive complexity, wit and skill, you'd do well to listen.
Favorite track: "Black Magic"
-- David Marchese