KINGS OF LEON, YOUTH & YOUNG MANHOOD (RCA) - There's something to be said for the charm of Southern punk rock boys. When the garage rocking men from Nashville's Kings of Leon kick it, they do so with swaggering grit. Already tagged the "Southern-fried Strokes," Kings of Leon churns out sweaty, raunchy rock that, more than the Strokes, strips away the pretense and self-consciousness. Kings of Leon's music is a throwback to a 1970s-style hootenanny of grungy guitar, economic bass lines and skittering drumbeats. Lovers of arty, delicate touches don't go away empty-handed either.
Kings of Leon features the brothers Nathan, Jared and Caleb Followill, all raised under the watch of a Pentecostal preacher father, driven from town to town in a van as pop spread the word of the Lord. That odd background provided the Followills with stories galore; it also made the boys grow up and appreciate a good time as well as the thrill of a barroom brawl (Joe's Head). Luckily, they also learned how to convey a story sharply: From the 1-2-3 punch of rollicking opener Red Morning Light (about prostitution), Happy Alone and Wasted Time, you know you've found a band that can write short, ragged beauties.
And there are dollops of beauty tossed in between the grit. (Hear those Verlainey guitar lines on Joe's Head?) When Caleb Followill sings to his lady in his slurred, Southern drawl, "I love to watch you when you're dancing," it sounds both sexy and naive. Who needs the pouting and preening of the band's New York and European counterparts? Kings of Leon dishes out the tunes minus pretense. It's greasy, vigorous, pure rock 'n' roll. A
- GINA VIVINETTO, Times pop music criticERYKAH BADU, WORLDWIDE UNDERGROUND (MOTOWN RECORDS) - Emblazoned on the front cover of Erykah Badu's deliciously trippy, old-school soul album Worldwide Underground is this bold message: "Freakquency is born and neo-soul is dead."
Badu's manifesto might seem blasphemous to longtime fans. She was credited with starting the movement, paving the way for singers like Jill Scott and Alicia Keys. But Badu has always espoused an earthy sexiness, whether it be in her jazz-influenced early work or 2000's more rocking Mama's Gun album. And Worldwide Underground is no less experimental. The album feels liberating, like Badu has let her soul sing. The results are messy, meandering (in a good way) and exciting.
Back in the Day (Puff) features a drizzly keyboard backbeat and heaps o' handclaps. You can't help but sigh when Badu sings: "back in the day when things were cool/all we needed was bop ba ba ba da," her satiny voice buoyed by the corresponding ba-dum-ba-dum of the music. The song's insouciant feel matches Badu's pining. Bump It gets exploratory with sexy ululating and thrusty beats courtesy of African chanters Zap Mama.
The album has its red hot moments, too. Danger feels desperate with its unyielding structure. Badu craves control and she sounds commanding. The song is punctuated by severe blasts of brass and Badu sings: "you're in danger/no hard feelings." The song is a metaphor for Badu's latest vision, an unruly, but appropriate, welcome to "freakquency." A-
- BRIAN ORLOFF, Times correspondentRUFUS WAINWRIGHT, WANT ONE (DREAMWORKS) - Rufus Wainwright fans love him for his musical innovation as much as his goofy charm. And on Want One (word is, Rufus was so prolific, a second volume will be released next year), Rufus supplies both: gorgeous, hugely orchestrated Tin Pan Alley, cabaret pop and the occasional giggle.
The album begins with Oh What a World. Its anchoring tuba loops between Ravel's Bolero theme and a choir of harmonizing vocals. The song blossoms into its circular structure and Wainwright sings, "Wouldn't it be a lovely headline?/"Life is Beautiful' on the New York Times," unveiling a fully orchestrated arrangement that looms as large as the wondrous pronouncement.
Things get grandiose on I Don't Know What It Is, which chugs along with its soaring melody and kicky chorus, and 14th Street, all glitter and pizzazz. The song, like Wainwright's persona, is over the top, splashy and so much fun.
Thematically, the album explores Wainwright's newly sober world view. He once sang about excesses. Now, he pines for simpler things. On the wistful title track, Wainwright disavows the fame and fortune he hammily sought. "I just want to be my dad/with a slight sprinkling of my mother/and work in the family store," he sings.
Family matters abound elsewhere. Dinner at Eight, one of his most poignant songs, discusses abandonment by his father (singer Loudon Wainwright III). Its plangent, elegant piano melody is finessed by supple strings and Wainwright's pleas. A
- B.O.BRAD PAISLEY, MUD ON THE TIRES (ARISTA RECORDS) - One of the many reasons to appreciate Brad Paisley, in addition to his musical skills, is his ability to inject humor into his songs without taking it to the extreme of a novelty act (like, say, Cletus T. Judd). Paisley can make 15,000 country fans go nuts in concert just by singing the first four words of his signature song, I'm Gonna Miss Her (The Fishin' Song). It's both catchy and funny, displaying a sense of humor seen once again on Mud on the Tires. The 30-year-old West Virginia native finds humor in stardom (the current hit, Celebrity) and the little white lies that keep relationships going (That's Love).
In addition to writing or co-writing more than half the songs on the album, he plays acoustic guitar, electric guitar, or both, on every song as well (along with 12-string guitar, 6-string bass and mandolin at various times). He's particularly impressive on The Best Thing That I Had Goin' and the title track, where Paisley lets his Telecaster rip.
He has a wide range of help on this album. Alison Krauss brings her sweet voice to Whiskey Lullaby, a haunting duet about slow suicide by alcohol. Vince Gill sings background on the gospel standard Farther Along. Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi sing baritone background vocals on That's Love. (Paisley is married to Father of the Bride star Kimberly Williams, who currently co-stars with Belushi on ABC's According to Jim.)
Paisley's ascent up the country ladder is well-earned, and this wonderful collection will keep him moving up. Grade: A-
- SCOTT ZIPSE, Times correspondent