Saturday, December 6, 2008

Kaiser Chiefs -- "Off With Their Heads"

Kaiser Chiefs -- “Off With Their Heads” (Universal Motown)

This Nth generation Britpop band has become big in the U.K. thanks to some killer singles. The band’s debut album had the instant classic “I Predict a Riot”. Then album number two contained “Ruby”, which wasn’t as good, but had a massive hook, allowing fans to pogo along with the band’s energetic frontman, Ricky Wilson.

I’m not sure if this album has a clear cut killer. But it’s a very consistent effort filled with good to great pop songs. Heaven knows we can’t have enough albums like that.

If there is a five-star song on this album, it’s the propulsive “Never Miss a Beat”, which features guest Lily Allen amongst a bevy of back up vocalists (co-producer Mark Ronson must have phoned her up to get in on the fun). The song skips along with one man call-and-response vocals from Wilson, singing over a steady rhythm track with a great tag line: “it’s cool/to know nothing.” The track then opens up into a rousing chorus of fiendish simplicity: “Take a look at the kids on the street/they never miss a beat.” Not Dylan-like poetry, but easy to sing along to.

Although the raison d’etre of the Kaiser Chiefs is rousing numbers, they keep getting better at the mid-tempo and the slow stuff. Wilson may not be the ultimate vocal talent, but he radiates empathy and good cheer and that goes a long way on tracks like “Good Days Bad Days” and “Always Happens Like That”.

“Good Days” has a great rhythm track, with an oscillating keyboard line, a rubbery bass line and a good dance beat. The song cooks even though it’s not all that fast or anything. While this mildly funky musical mix is taking place, the Chiefs overlay a sing-song melancholy melody, with Wilson championing the little guy. I love the flip lyrics, which verge on telling working class schlubs to stand up for themselves, but conclude with “If you had a different attitude/you’d still have good days and bad days.”

Then there’s the looking back ambience of “Always Happens Like That”. This is a 21st update on the poppier side of Madness, with a jaunty piano and modified ska backbeat. The words here are sketches, or even sketches of sketches, but a mood and feelings come across. It’s kind of a “man, we were so crazy when we were young, look what we got away with” sort of thing. And hey! Lily Allen adds her voice again.

The mood is more subdued on “Tomato in the Rain”, which has a couple superb chord changes that shift the song in new melodic directions. This is a very warm song (with the tag line “yes I do/know about you/shall I come home?”). An equally good track is the whispery closer “Remember You’re a Girl”. It’s gentle and insinuating, although I’m utterly unclear about what the hell Wilson is singing about. The music is good enough (this time) to overcome this.

This album should solidify the Kaiser Chiefs brand. Although Ronson certainly gets good performances out of the band, I would like the Chiefs to aim a bit higher, the way bands like XTC and Blur and The Kinks did. The Chiefs show enough flashes of lyrical acuity and have come up with enough top drawer songs that they should make a great record, not just another good one, like this one.


Slack-a-gogo said...

When I love the first two albums by a band, I always get a little nervous when that third album comes out. For me that's the make or break point to see whether they're truly a great band - and the Chiefs delivered. And you really nailed it that they're strong suit is becoming those mid-tempo songs, which is amazing since it seemed like it'd be hard for them to successfully pull away from the big powerhouse numbers like Riot. They're very naturally evolving into a broader band without sacrificing anything that made me love the first record, which leads me to believe that they're going to outlive many of their contemporaries and remain a vital band. I look forward to what they do next.

Anonymous said...

The Kaiser Chief's first album was an instant classic and their second was a disappointment (with a couple of great tracks), but this is a great return to form!