Kings of Leon
Holy Roller Novocaine
Well, the first wave of garage bands--the Hives, the Strokes, the Vines--didn't quite live up to the colossal sales expectations, but, as is usually the case in the music business, no one has the time to shed a tear. Already, there is a second generation of garage groups, but where their forebears emphasized '70s punk, the new class draws inspiration from more eclectic sources. Groups like the Sun and the Thrills seem to have spent just as much time warming to Cheap Trick and classic soul records, respectively. Meanwhile, Kings of Leon, recently signed by the same RCA talent scout who won the Strokes' bidding war, have made waves with their own Southern take on the garage sound. And if their debut EP is anything to go by, their album is sure to a bright spot on the 2003 release schedule.
The band is comprised of three brothers and one cousin, making it quite the family affair. But anyone with visions of an indie version of Hanson need not worry. The Followill clan is as musically ambitious as any veteran group. The EP kicks off with "Molly's Chambers." The most obvious single of the disc's five songs, it accents the standard garage clamor with shadings of the Allman Brothers' laid back, jammy flair. "Wicker Chair," which probes the dark depths of alcoholism, effectively uses the spare melody to conjure up images of evenings spent on the back porch sipping Jack. But the real gem of the bunch is "California Waiting," a steadily building rocker that highlights Caleb Followill's yearning, bruised vocals. Nice start. I only hope this group, along with the rest of the next generation, is wise enough to avoid the hype machine that slew its predecessors.
Having just reasserted his rap relevance with last year's Stillmatic, Nas places himself in a precarious position with God's Son, his seventh album. Will Nas boldly release something more akin to his classic debut Illmatic? Or will he go for the cheap buck, plunging once more again into the shallow commercialism that plagued his other albums? Thankfully, the answer lies closer to the former. God's Son is ultimately one of the more impressive rap albums of 2002; however, it's also a bit disappointing. Lyrically, Nas is on fire for the entire album, delivering soft, poignant verses about his recently deceased mother alongside rapid, raucous raps such as on the Eminem-produced "The Cross," where Nas states "If Virgin Mary had an abortion, I'd still be carried in a chariot by stampeding horses." Whoa. The upbeat "I Can" is clearly the jewel of the album, though, as Nas animatedly professes that children can "be what they wanna be" over an infectious Beethoven sample. However, the production is very inconsistent. While one cannot help but appreciate the perfect marriage between new-school and old-school on songs such as "Get Down" and "Made You Look," the rest of the production is dreary and unremarkable. This leaves songs to be carried entirely by Nas' clever lyrics and message, a strategy that only works at the album's beginning and end. Collaborations with Alicia Keys, Tupac, and the abysmal Bravehearts certainly don't liven things up either, as they end up feeling forced and hokey. In the end, God's Son is solid but frustrating--it has all the potential to transcend being merely "good" but doesn't capitalize on it. Nas retains his crown, but the question is, for how long?
Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!
Half a Brick Records
Despite having one of the worst, most awkward band names I have ever heard, Volcano, I'm Still Excited!! are not as bad as you might think. While Carbon Copy, their new EP, probably won't change your life, it's good enough to ensure ongoing interest. The band makes catchy instrumental (cello, trumpet, flugelhorn) pop with simple melodies and breezy harmonies--pleasant while you're listening but immediately forgettable. Perhaps the band's greatest weakness right now is Mark Duplass's vocals, which sound like Spoon's Britt Daniel without the suave, assured delivery. Broadly speaking, Volcano currently straddles the fine line between the simplistic melodies of Top 40 radio (which I find an anathema), and the greater complexity of indie rock. I do not mean to take an elitist stance with regard to Volcano, but only to forewarn of the trap that easy melodies provide: instantaneous pleasure rather than profound enjoyment.
(You're Not That Far)
We've seen this story repeated many times. Five boyhood friends get together to start a band, work at it for several years, and sign a major label contract and are whisked away to some fancy location to record their debut album; accolades and pandemonium ensue. But rarely, if ever, has the familiar tale yielded music as timeless and flat-out jaw-dropping as this. Quite simply, the Santa Cruz (You're Not that Far) EP eclipses nearly any debut this writer has ever heard. Hyperbole? Maybe. But this has to be heard to be believed. Unfortunately, many have already turned away in disgust before even giving the band a chance, as strange Strokes comparisons have already begun to take shape. However, the only things the Thrills have in common with that certain New York band are fashion sense and having a requisite "the" name. Musically speaking, these groups aren't in the same cosmos.
The Thrills take the very best elements of classic California pop in the Beach Boys tradition, and give it the ever-slightest modern twist. Beulah might come to mind, but the Thrills craft romantic, windswept melodies where the former's compositions border on kitsch. Songs like the title track and "Your Love is Like Las Vegas" are loving homages to a bygone era and sound--a time when vocal harmonies and the piano were fixtures on the radio dial. The lyrics brilliantly complement the sun-kissed melodies, revealing a fondness for the beat poets and long drives up the Pacific Coast Highway. It's easy for music this joyful and life-affirming to seem easy, but there's an unmistakable genius at work here. Avoid them at your own peril. This is where the hype ends and legends begin.
The Message at the Depth
If you have never heard "Fu-yu," from DJ Krush and Toshinori Kondo's collaboration Ki-Oku, you must go now and (legally) download it. It features Kondo on reverbed trumpet and Krush on the turntables, and is the next best thing to driving through the city at night.
Krush's new album, while not billed as a collaboration, also places a great emphasis on featured vocalists. Given their wide range, it would be easy to "enter" it expecting eclecticism. But just as with Kakusei and Milight, Krush has managed to integrate disparate collaborators into an overarching aesthetic. This time Krush opts for a dark, bassy, subaquatic sound reminiscent of the brooding segments of 2 Lone Swordsmen's Stay Down. Instrumental tracks like "Trihedron" and "Sanity Requiem" simultaneously evoke a submerged submarine and alley puddles. The metallic beats at play suggest the robot workshop of a techno-tyrannical state. Imagine a cinematic adaptation of Heart of Darkness set underwater, and this would be the score. The album loses some of its steam when avant-rappers Anticon wax political and Britney sound-alike Angelina Esparza takes center stage. Generally, however, The Message is a compelling listen, marred only occasionally by featured vocalists. Here's hoping that Krush's choice of collaborators will become as tight as his production.