Kings of Leon address popularity surge on new album

On a warm night in June, a few hundred people gathered in a gymnasium-sized ballroom at the Borgata Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J., not to gamble but to see the return of Kings of Leon. Eight months before, they wrapped up their tour for 2009’s massively successful “Only By the Night,” capping off what was their biggest year in America to date. On this night, however, they found themselves back in a small venue and ready to start a new chapter of their career.

The last time they played a small venue like this was during the tour for their third album, “Because of the Times,” a tour during which people were impressed by their swagger, confidence and stage presence. Now, those same people have come to loathe the Kings of Leon because of that same swagger and confidence. Kings of Leon walked out onto the dark stage, clean-shaven and dressed in flannel shirts and bone-tight jeans, seemingly jittery to get the show on the road.

“We haven’t played in a while, so we’re a little nervous,” Caleb Followill announced to the crowd in his raspy southern drawl before taking a shot of tequila to calm his nerves. Followill, leader of this band of brothers and one cousin, has made his disdain for their recently acquired fans no secret. So, instead of safely opening with a crowd pleaser, they dove straight into the first live performance of their new single, “Radioactive.” In fact, they played a total of four songs off of their new album “Come Around Sundown” that night, including “The Immortals,” the Chuck Berry doo-wop romp “Mary” and the country-tinged “Back Down South,” each fitting in well among their usual concert staples.

It’s always interesting to see how a crowd handles new songs at a concert. Kings of Leon, who now have a diverse discography, are not going to please everybody no matter what they do. But with a crowd that now includes a mix of hipsters, frat boys and soccer moms, everyone left Atlantic City happy in one way or another.

Kings of Leon easily could’ve put out “Only By the Night Part 2,” but instead have released an album that sounds more like what should’ve followed “Because of the Times.”

Casual Kings of Leon fans who put “Sex on Fire” or “Use Somebody” on repeat will be hard-pressed to find something as easily accessible as those songs on here, but it’s not so different that they will be turned away. Sticking with longtime producers Angelo Petraglia and Jacquire King, the Kings still play around with that U2-esque grandiose, but this time they have incorporated some of their older sounds that made them lovable in the first place.

Although the album was recorded live in the studio, with Caleb ad-libbing most of the lyrics, Kings of Leon go for atmosphere rather than unkempt riffs, due in part to Followill’s obsession with effects pedals and Nathan Followill’s reverberated drums. Then there is Jared Followill’s bass riffs, which swirl and twist loudly on many of the songs, especially in “The Immortals,” where it drives the song to its soaring chorus.

All-in-all, “Come Around Sundown” is a much more versatile album, albeit a safe one. There are a few unexpected moments here, like the incessant groove of “Pony Up,” the post-punk attack of “No Money” and the drunken haze of “Mi Amigo.” But in the end, what will come to disappoint a lot of people is that KOL never really bring the house down, so to speak, like they have been more than capable of doing in the past.

There are plenty of those who say that the “new” Kings of Leon sold out for a bigger sound and popularity, and in turn these people will simply stop listening to them because of this newfound success. This is just wrong and unfair. Why should bands, no matter who they are, be ostracized for wanting to be the best?

Any new band who says they don’t want to be the biggest and the best would be lying. It’s what all bands strive for in the end. Many artists nowadays don’t have that drive that bands have had in the past, instead settling for a quick buck and a cheap radio hit.

You have to at least appreciate Kings of Leon’s drive to be the greatest. At first they were just a couple of kids rocking out on instruments they barely knew out to play, but as they got older, they became wiser and more mature with their craft. Bands should not settle on staying in the same place, stuck with a sound they can’t get out of.

Many of these fans who accuse Kings of Leon of selling out are the same fans who praise Radiohead for their musical achievements. No doubt Radiohead is a groundbreaking band that has set the way for a band like Kings of Leon, but when it comes down to it, their status is no different. They too have massive radio hits and have achieved similar stardom in the United States, selling out arenas and stadiums all over the country. Yet, nobody accuses Radiohead of selling out. For Kings of Leon, selling out would be sticking with that old sound from their first two records knowing they are capable of doing something much bigger.

The point here is, people shouldn’t simply dismiss “Come Around Sundown” just because it might sell a lot of albums. Forget everything you know about Kings of Leon. Forget about their newfound fame because this album doesn’t rely on the band’s fame.

There are certainly songs that fans of old will enjoy, and then those that newer fans will make their ringtones. Yet, when it comes down to it, Kings of Leon are just another hard-working rock band that is still growing up and still learning right before our eyes.