Aural Pleasure 

Dethroned Kings

You learn a lot about rock artists with their third album. A debut album delivers 20 years of pent-up energy and generally culls the best material from a band’s club gigs. The second album tends to be a slightly more refined version of the first album, often with spottier songs and a diminished freshness.

By the third album, however, most noteworthy songwriters start feeling restless (and/or sufficiently assured of their position in the marketplace) and decide to make a bold leap into new territory. Often, this is when talent, youth, and ambition converge to create a masterpiece: London Calling, Dirty Mind, Born To Run, Summerteeth, The Who Sell Out, Something/Anything?, Armed Forces, Parallel Lines, OK Computer,  and The Replacements’ Let It Be. Unfortunately, this can also be the moment when a band crashes head-on into its own limitations, and creates a pseudo-artsy, bummed-out disappointment (e.g., The Strokes’ unconvincing First Impressions of Earth).

Like the great bands they emulate, Kings of Leon refuse to place any limits on their creative powers, and after two albums of straight-ahead, Southern riff-rock, they’ve
liberated themselves with Because of the Times. Too much freedom can lead to a loss of discipline, however, and the meandering seven-minute opener, a threadbare pregnancy tale called “Knocked Up,” quickly indicates that discipline was not a high priority for the Kings on this album.

The group’s explorations of new rhythms and sonic colors are admirable, but often put them at odds with their narrow, but very real, strengths. On occasion, particularly with “Black Thumbnail” and the acoustic-driven “Fans,” you can hear them finding a perfect synthesis of their old and new styles. But as a statement of intent, Because of the Times feels confused. Time will tell whether it’s a transitional work that’ll lead to better things, or a signal that this talented band is played out.

— Gilbert Garcia
 



Heartland Hack

For all the female commercial success stories American Idol has produced over the last six years (Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood), the modern-day musical judge, jury, and executioner has been much less rewarding to its chosen sons (Justin Guarini, Clay Aiken, Bo Bice, Taylor Hicks, etc.).

Still, a dollar is a dollar, so it’s no surprise recording contracts are handed out to nearly every face that gets a chance to milk a little Idol airtime.

The latest recording bone has been thrown to Bucky Covington, a young man who barely made it into the top 10 last year. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t forget a name or a face you probably remember Bucky, who eerily resembles jazz singer Diana Krall, or would if she ever grew a soul patch. But jazz is not Bucky’s musical forte.  

On his self-titled debut album, Covington steps into the highly charted territory of Americana. In what seems to be a retooling of Springsteen’s “Glory Days” through 11 song titles — such as “American Friday Night,” “Hometown,” and “It’s Good To Be Us” — originality does not come off as Bucky’s strong suit. And with Nashville producer Mark Miller (of Sawyer Brown fame/infamy) at the helm, Covington doesn’t stand a chance of escaping the slick Music Row chains to which he’s bound.    

Another setback is that the album is manufactured on Lyric Street, the proclaimed “country division” of the Buena Vista/Walt Disney Company. Lyric Street produces bands of similar stunted creative growth, such as Rascal Flatts and Shedaisy. Unlike those bands, however, Covington adds a little vocal flavor to each song with a voice that suggests Travis Tritt with a pulled groin.

With Underwood poised to become the most popular Idol to date, one can only imagine how music execs have been salivating over the initiation of the next country crossover. As demonstrated by his performance on the show, Covington will never be first-rate, so he might have to settle for a distant, second-think Kellie Pickler.

— Ryan Markmann



Chasing Amy

Ever since the Motown era, British audiences have treated American soul music with a reverence  it rarely receives on our own shores. But appreciation does not always translate into skill, as anyone who’s suffered through Mick Jagger’s live 1966 version of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” will surely agree. Many British artists have successfully dabbled in R&B (Elton John, Steve Winwood, George Michael), but the list of full-time, wannabe soul singers to emerge from England over the years is a bland and execrable lot: Boy George, Mick Hucknall, Sade, Tony Hadley, Rick Astley, post-Jam Paul Weller, Lisa Stansfield, and Joss Stone (before you shout “Dusty Springfield,” let’s consider her the exception that proves the rule).

Since my first exposure to much-hyped bad girl Amy Winehouse was an overcooked live version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” sung with Paul Weller, I couldn’t help but question the fawning treatment accorded her sophomore album, Back to Black, in the UK media last year. Well, if anything, the fawning may have been a bit understated. Back to Black, belatedly available in the United States, is everything a great 21st-century soul record should be: mindful of tradition but inherently modern; emotionally open but laced with potty-mouth defiance.

 Winehouse obviously loves the classics, and the album’s production often skirts dangerously close to retro, girl-group pastiche, most notably on the crooning “Me & Mr. Jones.” But she’s a creature of her times, and part of the album’s thrill comes from the way she spits anachronisms into the mix, a tattooed, drunken lout stealing the mic away from the Supremes and yammering about her refusal to go to rehab, or her annoyance at missing a Slick Rick show.

Her voice is such a sultry force, and her personality is so commanding, that she can take on the titans and emerge with her identity intact. The most brazen example comes with “Tears Dry On Their Own,” which appropriates the musical backing from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and creates a breakup song so masterful it could serve as a bookend to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s expression of commitment.

At one point, Winehouse concedes to a two-timed lover, “I told you I was trouble/ you know I’m no good.” Fortunately for us, that’s the gospel truth.

— Gilbert Garcia

 


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