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