Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Review: Kaiser Chiefs, Off with Their Heads (B-Unique)

What the…? Another Kaiser Chiefs album? Wasn’t the last one like three weeks ago? What are these guys trying to prove? ARE THEY TRYING TO MAKE ME LOOK BAD??!!?!? Hmmm, let me check…holy crap. OK, “Yours Truly, Angry Mob” actually came out way back in February 2007. That’s almost two years! Well, that’s still relatively quick compared to most bands, but hell… I must be getting older because 21 months seems like 21 nano-seconds these days.

Anyway, enough about my daunting mortality; let’s talk about the album. First off, let me say that it IS refreshing to have a band pump out albums with Woody-Allen-like regularity when every other band outside of country music seems to take their pansy-ass time between discs.

What the Kaiser Chiefs seem to be doing here is harkening back to a more “innocent” time (the 60’s) when quartermaster-like record companies treated musicians like their own personal b-words and forced them to generate a full album’s worth of product every few months or so, or at least until the artists went batsh*t crazy and suffered career-crippling nervous breakdowns. (Ah, good times!) This pressurized approach generated both some of the most startlingly inspired and drop-dead brilliant music ever created by man and some of the most disposable throwaway crap to ever foul up a turntable. So, which camp do you think the Kaiser Chiefs and their abbreviated time-table approach land in?

Well, I wouldn’t call this the most brilliant music ever made by man, but YEE-HAW it sure is hooky fun, in a mod-rocker, new wavey sort of way. Sadly, you wouldn’t necessarily know it from the lead-off track, “Spanish Metal,” which, quite frankly, stinks. This song bursts out of the gate all blustery and shrill before meandering into a so-so melody and almost non-existent chorus. I’m not exactly sure why this track is first on the album; maybe the Chiefs wanted to trick everyone into thinking they suck real bad so the next track would seem even more uber-awesome by comparison.

If that was the strategy, it pays off big time because uber-awesome is what the next track is! “Never Miss a Beat” (the first single) is everything “Spanish Metal” should be: big, boisterous fun with a slightly menacing edge and hooks galore. The throbbing, vaguely terrifying intro quickly gives way to a pressure-cooker melody before eventually erupting into Kim-Wilde-ish glee in the chorus. At that point, huge, swirling keyboard lines threaten to devour your brain as Ricky Wilson bellows, “Never miss a beat! Beat! BEAT! BEAT!!” like it actually means something.

Ironically, the riot-inducing maelstrom of music on “Never Miss a Beat” belies some kind of thinly-veiled but cheeky message (I think) about being cool, staying in school, and not doing drugs. It’s sort of like Nancy Reagan (or Margaret Thatcher) telling you to “just say no” before she mercilessly tramples you to death with her Doc Martens. Seriously though, I’m totally fine with this more “polite” approach to rock music. The Kaiser Chiefs wisely eschew tired, played-out “RAAAAWK” clichés in favor of huge dollops of melodic British drollness. Hmmmm. Okay, maybe they’re both pretty played out at this point, but I’ll take the latter over the former any day, unless we’re talking about some pretentious crap from Morrissey, of course.

After “Never Miss a Beat” ends its crumpet-crushing reign of terror, we’re treated to nifty tracks like “Like It Too Much,” which reminds me of Gary Numan in the verses, but quickly morphs into a quirky XTC number in the chorus. “Good Days and Bad Days,” which you’ll be doomed to sing for weeks (or until someone shoots you in the face), is like The Kaiser Chiefs doing Howard Jones’ chipper new-wave optimism shtick without the little shirtless ball-and-chain dude. And yeah, while it’s easy to make these kinds of comparisons, “Off with Their Heads” never feels derivative or (god help us) ironic thanks to the up-to-date production and seamless songcraft on display.

Other highlights include the happy-go-lucky (!) chorus of “Addicted to Drugs” and the strum and drang coda to “Half the Truth.” Honestly, there are no real naff tracks in the lot, although “Can’t Say What I Mean” seems to be trying to convince me it’s a lot more exciting than it really is, and oh, yeah, “Spanish Metal” is ready for the scrapheap, as we’ve already discussed. So, even though this album is pretty damn good, I can’t really give it classic status, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, while the Kaiser Chiefs are above-average songwriters - and that fact alone is enough to distinguish them from many of their peers – they don’t really have a unique enough vision beyond banging out the hookiest rock songs they can (with some clever wordplay thrown in the mix). “Well, what’s wrong with that?” you may ask. (Or you may have already stopped reading this review and are now 12 porn sites away.)

While there’s obviously nothing wrong with cranking out super-catchy pop/rock nuggets, history tells us those bands always need a little extra “something”- a sensibility, a gimmick, a subtext, a flavor – that helps set them apart from the pack and give them longevity. Hell, even Cheap Trick had that dude with all the wacky guitars. Whatever it is, people just need that little extra “x” factor which makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts and an album more than a collection of really good songs. I haven’t seen that emergent property in the Kaiser Chiefs yet, but it could still be there. I’m definitely willing to give them a little more time based on “Off with Their Heads.”

The second reason I can’t give this album classic status is a result of the band’s efforts to rush it out so quickly. No, there are no sloppy performances. The problem is the disc only runs 35:40! And two minutes of that is spent on “Spanish Metal.” Sure, way back in the 60’s thirty to thirty-five minutes was fine for an LP. Since the advent of CD’s, I just can’t see any album being less than 45 minutes, even if that means having to wait an extra few months for the final product.

If you think I’m being unfair, you’re probably right. But shortening your disc so you can get it our quicker seems like a cheat to me. Yeah, I’d rather have 35 minutes of solid material as opposed to 70 minutes of pointless jams and crappy filler songs, but can’t we meet halfway (across the sky)? I’ll endure a little Trey-Anastasio-ing if it means I’m getting my full 12 bucks worth. I don’t want those a-holes at Best Buy thinking they got one over on me (especially that jerk who says “Hello” every time I walk in the damn door).

Look, either way, I’m recommending the album, so don’t get in a snit over it. “Off with Their Heads” is pretty damn good and hopefully the Chiefs’ next one will be even better…and longer.

*** (three out of five stars)


Steve Lanzone said...

35 minutes, huh? That is pretty short. But 35 minutes of good music is certainly better than releasing a 70 minute album with 35good minutes and 35 minutes of "Spanish Metal", right?

Holly A Hughes said...

These guys have been good long enough, they shouldn't be getting A's for Effort anymore. They do seem to have a fertile songwriting streak, which makes me hope they'll stick around; I haven't yet heard them repeat a melodic phrase or a riff, and I really appreciate how tuneful their music is (they could so easily get away with loud thrashing instead).

I see this whole UK scene as a sort of horse race, with the Fratellis, Franz Ferdinand, the Kaiser Chiefs, and the Arctic Monkeys running neck-and-neck. (But haven't the Monkeys recently pulled up lame?) Both the Fratellis and Franz Ferdinand recently released new albums; I'll bet that's the Chiefs rushed this one out. Can't let the competition get the edge on you!