Over the course of three albums, Kings of Leon have worn their undigested influences on their rangy, sleeveless arms. Sure, this is partly born of a supremely unambitious approach, but the result is a rare, uncomplicated rock pleasure. 2005's Aha Shake Heartbreak has endured several years into the blog era, while "The Bucket" even recently earned an of-the-moment CSS remix. And the blatant Pixies aping of "Charmer" from last year's underrated Because of the Times couldn't be more beguilingly in love with Frank Black if a team of alienated '90s teens sang or screamed it.
Sadly, Kings' fourth record, Only by the Night, is mostly an arena-rock aberration. The band members need to write spacious, grandiose songs designed for British festivals, or the Killers will usurp them. But stadium-scale drama doesn't suit their strengths. "Crawl" is a great single, singer Caleb Followill drawling over fuzzy Brit-bombast. But "Closer," "Use Somebody," and "Be Somebody" could work only at giant concerts: Through headphones or computer speakers, his echoey vocals just don't sound credible. The group's Black-Crowes-go-new-wave choruses feel unearned after tiresome, oversung verses.
The album's best moments (excluding "Crawl") arrive in the looser second half. "Revelry" sounds like the Allman Brothers as produced by Dave Sitek. "Notion" and "17" are the kind of undercooked tunes that underscore the band's career-long strengths: unaffected energy and joyful playing. Kings of Leon's efforts to expand their sound are admirable, but sticking to a smaller scale will give the band a better chance at enduring. That, or they should just go ahead and actually work with Sitek next time, finally unleashing their '70s stoner epic: the psych-rock masterpiece the Allmans never made.