Spin Control

April 8, 2007


Kings of Leon, "Because of the Times" (RCA)

Critic's rating: 1 and a halfstars

On their first two albums, this much-hyped Nashville quartet offered an alternative update on the '70s Southern rock the three Followill brothers grew up listening to as they traveled the country with their father, a Pentecostal minister. It was basically a hipper take on the Black Crowes, though the group had a good backstory and a mildly engaging sound, at least in small doses. But success has spoiled the Kings of Leon.

Opening arena shows for Bob Dylan, Pearl Jam and especially U2 has influenced the group in all the wrong ways. Gone is the garage-rock concision of their earlier albums, replaced by tedious, meandering jamming; witness the opening track, "Knocked Up," which finds the band going nowhere fast for seven minutes as Caleb Followill croons a backward-looking tale about a young man unexpectedly becoming a father ("She don't care what her mama says / She's gonna have my baby").

The boys' heroes in Crazy Horse might have been able to pull off songs like that one, "McFearless" or the gospel-tinged "The Runner," but the Kings lack the guitar growl -- especially now that they spend so much time imitating the heavily echoed style of the Edge -- as well as the undertow rhythms; the second half of the disc is dominated by plodding grooves that make even the four-minute tunes seem three times longer. The only exception to the formula is "Charmer," which finds the foursome blatantly ripping off the Pixies. But that's hardly a satisfying detour, and it does nothing to redeem the aimless nature of the other dozen tracks.


Timbaland, "Timbaland Presents Shock Value" (Interscope)

Critic's rating: 2 stars

More than just another producer with a platinum-pop touch, 36-year-old Tim Mosley has justified the hero worship over the last decade by being a true collaborator, drawing the best out of artists as diverse as Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake by revealing previously unheard elements of their sounds. But as he proved on earlier pseudo-solo efforts, the Virginia-based sonic sculptor is far from his best when left to his own devices.

Clearly timed to capitalize on his recent accomplishments and positioned as his first "real" solo album, "Timbaland Presents Shock Value" tries to show the producer's range as a craftsman of off-beat but irresistible grooves. It can be divided evenly and sequentially into hip-hop party jams, sodden and unremarkable R&B tracks and unlikely and mostly unsuccessful pairings with rockers such as Swedish garage maestros the Hives ("Throw It On Me"), Chicago pop-punks Fall Out Boy ("One & Only," which sounds like a reject from their recent disc) and Elton John ("2 Man Show").

Despite the endless roster of guests, Timbaland vocally inserts himself into the proceedings at every turn, though his rapping is weak and his singing is even worse. What's more, for such a smart, creative and endlessly curious artist, he has nothing to say: His verse in the hip-hop superstar summit "Bounce" devolves into tawdry sexism -- though Dr. Dre and Elliott aren't much more inspiring -- and through the rest of the bloated, 17-tune disc, he interrupts the drooling horn dog routine primarily for pointless bragging about his talents at the board. (Hey buddy -- show, don't tell!)

Yes, there are a few pleasures to be had in the house jams in the first third ("Give it to Me," "Release"). Ultimately, though, the album leaves you puzzling over how an ear that always finds the right notes for others so thoroughly failed its owner.


Amy Winehouse, "Back to Black" (Universal/Republic)

Critic's rating: 1 and a halfstars

On the second track on her second album, in between choruses devoted to underscoring that "You Know I'm No Good," 23-year-old London bad girl and soul-pop sensation Amy Winehouse delivers a flippant line that underscores her biggest problem: "By the time I'm out the door," she croons, "You tear me down like Roger Moore." That's a Bond reference, of course, and this particular track is pure wannabe Shirley Bassey. But geez, if you're gonna nod to 007, you have to name-check Sean Connery, right? The Moore shout-out is just a little off and smacking of shtick, and the same can be said of Winehouse's whole routine.

The singer's many champions in the British and, of late, the U.S. press go out of their way trying to paint Winehouse as more than just another retro-revivalist, generally noting her love of hip-hop and lyrics such as "What kind of f---ery is this? / You made me miss the Slick Rick gig." Yet that line comes in the midst of a song called "Me & Mr. Jones," which couldn't possibly sound more early-'60s, and there are just as many lyrical nods to Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway, not to mention musical rips from Nina Simone.

Winehouse would clearly love to be viewed as a member of such esteemed and soulful company, but she doesn't come close: In the end, she's too snotty to be sultry, too obvious to be intriguing and too derivative to be of much interest behind her vaguely endearing single "Rehab," a sad justification for why she doesn't want to clean up her act. Sorry, but the first step is admitting you have a problem.