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The Story of Kings of Leon’s Debut, ‘Youth and Young Manhood’

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When Kings of Leon arrived on the scene in the U.S. on Aug. 19, 2003 with their debut album, Youth and Young Manhood, they sounded like a modern version of Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Lead singer Caleb Followill’s cracking, screamed-out, whiskey-damaged Southern drawl smacked of John Fogerty — not his soft-rocker hits, but rather CCR’s dirtier, bluesier cuts. And guitarist Matthew Followill displayed flashes of sheer brilliance in his lead work, peeling off tasty riffs.

Like any young band starving for the media’s attention, the Kings also had a great back-story, which made for a solid paragraph or two in every feature about them that ran that year. Followill brothers Caleb (vocals/rhythm guitar), Nathan (drums) and Jared (bass) had grown up as the children of a traveling preacher. The three brought in cousin Matthew (lead guitar) to fill out the lineup after moving to the mecca of country music, Nashville. The lore certainly helped sell their ragged, ’70s-rock image, which can be seen on the cover of Youth and Young Manhood, drawing upon the iconography of Queen‘s second album.

When Youth hit shelves, there were some grumblings that they were just another Strokes knockoff. Indeed, several of the songs feature similar minimalist, repeating rhythm guitar; punchy, thrumming bass lines; and plastic production. But that’s pretty much where the similarities end. And in the years since, Kings of Leon have eclipsed the Strokes in sound, commercial viability and influence — by leaps and bounds. The chrysalis of this can be heard on Youth.

Cut partly at Sound City, the studio mythologized in Dave Grohl‘s documentary, and at Shangri-La Studios, also in Southern California, Youth is a driving, thunderous debut from start to finish. The set of songs is eclectic, but not overly so. Opener “Red Morning Light” is reminiscent of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” and features a deliciously Dave Davies-esque guitar solo from Matthew. “Trani,” meanwhile, is a down-tempo country-rock tune that morphs into a dirty rock waltz. “California Waiting,” one of the album’s singles, boasts a borderline-great chorus — something the band would build on with later albums (see “Sex on Fire”).

Throughout the album, Caleb’s vocals sound have an authentic screamed-to-the-brink quality, and on songs like “Spiral Staircase,” he sounds a lot like the late Bon Scott of AC/DC. Also of note is the band’s chunky rhythm section, another aspect of their sound that would set them apart from their contemporaries. (Fast-forward to a song like “Closer,” from 2008’s “Only by the Night,” for more proof of this.)

Youth and Young Manhood landed in the U.K. nearly a full month before its U.S. release, and it’s perhaps for that reason the band has earned such a tremendous following abroad. While Youth only reached No. 113 on the Billboard 200, it climbed to a spectacular No. 3 on the U.K. chart, giving the young outfit a bona fide hit. In the wake of their Euro successes, Volkswagen later used the Kings’ single “Molly’s Chambers” in a Jetta commercial.

Certainly, the band’s subsequent blockbusters have overshadowed this album, but it’s worth a re-listen — especially for comparison’s sake. Play it back-to-back with the 2004 follow-up, Aha Shake Heartbreak, to hear how grown-up the band got in such a short period of time.

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