They don't make seven-minute doomed-teen-lover melodramas like the Kings of Leon's "Knocked Up" anymore. This is the Tennessee band's big album-opening saga, building from quiet to loud with guitar licks that sound like the Edge fried in okra, with ominous thunderclap drumrolls. Caleb Followill chokes on his story: He and his cowgirl are gonna have a baby, her mama don't like it, they don't care, they're hitting the road in a Coupe de Ville, no doubt just one step ahead of The Man. "I've taken all I've had to take/This takin's gonna shake me," Caleb declares with his usual throaty passion, gunning for the border as the guitars weave between U2 and Uriah Heep. Car + girl + lots and lots of guitar = "Knocked Up." Kings of Leon make it sound so simple — and so funny — they make you forget how many other bands go soft trying to run this same road.
It's an excellent opener to an excellent third album from the Kings. Because of the Times, named after a Southern preachers' conference that the boys used to attend with their Pentecostal minister father, is a whole album full of songs inspired by the only topic the Kings seem to care about: no-good women, the kind who turn nice country boys into thieves, fugitives or corpses, and make them love every sordid second of it. These are sons of the preacher man: singer-guitarist Caleb, bassist Jared and drummer Nathan are brothers, while cousin Matthew plays lead guitar. The Followills grew up living in a car with their defrocked itinerant minister daddy, Leon, and they basically went into the same business, except they've got sticky fingers for sin. On anthemic shitkickers like "Black Thumbnail," "My Party" and "On Call," they flare up like Black Oak Arkansas on a jag with the Ozark Mountain Daredevils and the Amazing Rhythm Aces.
When the Kings first arrived on the garage-rock scene a few years ago, they whipped up so much interest right away, nobody really minded that they weren't any good. Their Grizzly Adams beards, their Bible-thumping family background — it all fed into their fans' Huck Finn fantasy of unspoiled backwoods boogie. Well, the back story was cute for about five minutes, but the songs didn't get the job started until their second album, the stunning (and sorely underrated) Aha Shake Heartbreak. From the sounds of the record, the Kings had met a few girls on the road and gotten their asses handed to them. There were all sorts of new energy and wit in the Strokes-Skynyrd music as the Kings unloaded their fantastic groupie tales — the girl in "Soft" would paint your toes and let her "perfect nipples" show, while the girl in "Milk" had an hourglass body and lent you her toothbrush.
Because of the Times is even better — the band doesn't fuss with any sort of rootsy purism, which is why it gets away with retro moves that would sound soft from anybody else. Matthew Followill keeps getting more expansive dynamics out of his guitar, with salutary Euro influences — "Charmer" has a driving guitar riff swiped from Wire's "Ex Lion Tamer," probably by way of Blur's "Song 2." "Trunk" has loony, high-lonesome oooohs over some serious swamp-blues guitar murk. Folksy ballads like "Fans" and "The Runner" remind you that the Kings could be as facile as the Black Crowes or Nickelback if they were content to aim that low. Caleb's vocals continue to defy description: Steppenwolf's John Kay after a nad-crushing motorcycle crash? The Band's Richard Manuel with scurvy? Dave Matthews getting ripped apart by wolverines? And did I mention the lyrics? Ridiculous little monsters, they are, fit to get brutally stomped into the dirt, which in fact is exactly how Caleb treats them. How good can the Kings of Leon get? On Because of the Times, they've already gone further than anybody could have guessed.