Archive | September, 2018

The Kooks ‘Lets Go Sunshine’ – Review

29 Sep

Back in 2006 Arctic Monkeys were riding a monumental wave that felt like it could crash at any moment. Perhaps anticipating a backlash, the band opted not to perform on Top of the Pops, do interviews or release songs with obvious hit potential. The likes of ‘Mardy Bum’ and ‘From the Ritz to the rubble’ were left to languish on the album and you can only imagine the frustration felt by radio programmers and TV producers. There to scratch that itch were the more affable Kooks, a band brimming with stage school talent who just so happened to hit puberty at a time when boys with long Curley hair and leather jackets were in vogue. In another decade ‘Naive’ could have been dressed up as a New Romantic synth pop number or a sweeping britpop ballad. In 2006, it was at the forefront of the nu-indie revolution. Less dangerous than The Libertines, better looking than Arctic Monkeys, easier on the ears than Razorlight, The Kooks were the major label face (and for one summer the sound) of British indie rock.

The older guard of Indie were, perhaps understandably, perplexed by the commercialisation of their genre but The Kooks youthful peans to love and innocence, tempered by soft melodies and bursts of energy, caught the mood of a generation. A mood as sweet as it was short lived. The likes of ‘She Moves in Her Own Way’ and ‘Seaside’ always sounded vaguely nostalgic for something slightly out of reach, and now, in the rear view mirror, that warm, glowing feeling is only amplified. But what was once hazy and romantic has crusted over on ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’. Here the nostalgia is spelt out in felt tip colours; the past dressed up and sold as something tangible and sellable. The nostalgia somehow feels too on the nose, and at points cynical.

The most overt example is ‘Tesco Disco’, where Luke Pritchard describes a misspent youth of drinking from warm cans and working part time jobs. ‘Where did you go, sweet Caroline? The girl I used to know…’ the ghostly reverb oversells the detachment between past and present, innocence and experience, and the lyrical cliches (‘we laughed until we cried’ ‘I’m no good at goodbyes’) provide a dissonance that is hard to get past. It’s a catchy song though – Pritchard is a gifted melodist, (if something of a marmite singer) but, as on ‘Tesco Disco’, these catchy melodies are often hampered by his lyrics. Even The Kooks most likeable choruses convey an underwhelming (if often charming) mundanity – ‘she moves in her own way, she came to my show just to hear about my day’ ‘I know, she knows, I’m not fond of asking’ – often mumbled beyond the point of clarity. More dammingly though, he has a fatal tendency to overshare. On the thrilling ‘Eddie’s Gun’ the bad metaphors couldn’t hide that this song was about erectile disfunction. The titles of ‘Jackie Bit Tits’ and ‘Do You Wanna Make Love’ gave the crudity of the game away before you even pressed play.

The Kooks have cited their own ‘Ooh La’ is a principal inspiration, which isn’t surprising; few bands ride on the coat tails of their debut’s success with as much oblivion as this lot (their subsequent albums have all been dead on arrival both critically and commercially); still burdened by their own early success yet unable to see past it, ‘Inside In/Inside Out’ hangs over their head as a constant reminder and challenge. Generally they seem incapable of replicating that magical, hard to describe quality of those early hits. The calculated sophista-pop of ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’, makes all the right noises and presses all the obvious buttons but never produces a song that transcends its dreary setting (dreamier than even the beige album art would suggest).

But dreary isn’t so bad, not when disastrous served as a far more apt adjective when describing some songs on their past three albums. As Nu-Indie’s cultural cache faded, The Kooks made ill-fated efforts to update and expand their sound, messing around with electronic elements on the utterly uneventful ‘Junk of the Heart’ and (tragically) r&b, gospel and hip hop on the shockingly Ill judged ‘Listen’. In comparison, concerns about the bland, basic palette of ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’ seem relatively tame. The Kooks aren’t aiming particularly high and ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’ actually counts as something of a return to form – albeit the patchy, hit and miss form of their sophomore album ‘Konk’. In some regards the first half of this album can be interpreted as the cliched ‘back to basics’ thing that is often the direct consequence of unsuccessful experimentation. But it also suffers slightly in its vague attempts to sound familiar and relevant at the same time. prerequisite ‘wooh woohs’ and processed snare beats highlight predictable choruses that sound designed by a committee. Put these contemporary elements alongside the acoustic shuffles heard on ‘Fractured and Dazed’, ‘Chicken Bone’, ‘Four Leaf Clover’ and the jangly riffs of ‘All This Time’ and you have a pretty safe return on your investment.

Where there is adventure, it’s sensible adventure; the album’s back half is more exploratory and more interesting as a result. Freed from the limiting constraints of trying to replicate their old sound and staying current, the band investigate whilst staying in their natural range. ‘Initials for Gainsbourg’ adds baroque elements to their acoustic mix and the pretty ‘Honeybee’ features a folky melody provided by Pritchard’s father. ‘No Pressure’ manages to convey the breeziness of their early material while utilising subtle harmonic touches running just below the surface. It’s so good, the band use it as the intro and final track.

As the band’s recent ‘best of’ compilation suggested, The Kooks are a good singles band (even if most of their best single come from the same album). ‘Lets Go Sunshine’ provides a couple that would have been worthy of inclusion on such an album, a couple of more album tracks that subtly expand their sound in interesting ways, and then a lot in between that is fairly dull and forgettable. Thankfully though, nothing is truely terrible, and that’s a step in the right direction. But even a generous fan giving ‘Let’s Go Sunshine’ a go might justifiably find themselves pondering, if time spent listening to this could be time better spent listening to ‘Naive’ fifteen times on repeat.



The Lemon Twigs ‘Go to School’ – Review

16 Sep

The Lemon Twigs ‘Do Hollywood’ was one of the most accomplished debut albums of the last decade, rendered more remarkable by the fact that its chief architects weren’t out of school when they recorded the album for the legendary 4AD studios. Now, the band are describing their new, second album as a musical – and this isn’t a half hearted claim either, there are points were it really goes full on Bugsy Malone. To say that this is an unexpected development for a band coming hot on the heals of a cool, acclaimed debut might be an understatement. But then there was always a theatrical edge to the band that split critics down the middle, and a prevalent sense of ‘expect the unexpected’. For fans, ‘Do Hollywood’, demonstrated a range and ability that artists twice their age would struggle to compete with. ‘Go to School’ ups the ante in almost every sense; it’s even more eclectic, even more ambitious and, somehow, likely to prove even more divisive.

The attribute that Lemon Twigs have in spades, that separates them from the crowd, is enthusiasm. They remind us of how fun it feels to be young, celebrated and drunk on rock n roll. This is the band we would want to be in if we were 17 and had a touch of the same confidence, talent and tenacity (just one of the three might do). Every single song lives out a different kind of absurdist rock n roll fantasy with an excitement that belies any sense of giving a damn. Sincerity is just another pose. High kicks are the cost of entry. Eyes wide, eyeliner primed, glitter bombs at the ready.

And why not? When did Rock stars start taking themselves so seriously? In their heyday, bands like Queen and Led Zeppelin were characterised by flamboyant lead singers and a sense that they were in on the joke. Somewhere down the line Rock became the domain of boring Joes, your Royal Bloods and Imagine Dragons. And that really is a striking about The Lemon Twigs – the unabashed silliness of two brothers parading around on stage in tight vintage outfits, singing songs about a monkey who falls in love with a human girl. That they find the humour in their subject without becoming the joke is testament to an insane natural ability and impeccably well honed understanding of their genre.

This all encompassing rock n roll vision is filtered through a homespun lens that gives a charm to material that might easily become cliched in a more refined setting. The brothers produced the album themselves, from a home studio, and as a result it has a close, warm atmosphere that appropriately gives ‘Go to School’ a distinct vintage feel at odds with modern rock music. The Lemon Twigs are a throwback in other respects as well. The gutsy, bold songwriting, particularly in the opening few numbers, will remind you of Big Star, The Beatles Todd Rundgren, Beach Boys and The Who – all bands The Lemon Twigs have covered at gigs in the past year. These aren’t just imitations; theirs are unusual, creative melodies accompanied by expansive, and daring arrangements. In isolation, any one of these songs will inspire distinct admiration. The album’s success as a whole piece is more debatable.

The thing about musicals is that they have a strong visual element and almost always contain dialogue to set out exposition. Without either of those elements, Lemon Twigs rely purely on their lyrics to do the heavy lifting. Invariably the songs that advance the plot drag the album down. The middle third is particularly exposition heavy, and suffers as a result with show tunes that seem to serve no other purpose than to make a plot point. And, as you might expect, the storyline about poor Shane, an unloved and well meaning chimp,, doesnt keep your attention outright. Only when accompanied by blistering music, as on the incredibly powerful ‘The Fire’, or the explosive ‘Rock Dreams’ does the plot truly come to life. The campy piano ballads that clog up the middle stretch (‘The Lesson’, ‘Wonderin Ways’, ‘Born Wrong’) feel too calculated and generic to really excite.

Not all the songs benefit from being so tethered to the plot. The sincere message of ‘Lonely’ a disaffected, pretty ballad in The Carpenters mould, and a song written about personal experience when Michael was still at school, gets lost in between the more contrived showtunes. Likewise, the cute, yet moralising, ‘If You Give Enough’, and even the whip cracking ‘Queen of my School’, so memorable as The Twigs staple set closer, feel reduced in this context, burdened by odd plot details, awkward turns of phrase (‘Shane boy, be my toy / my pussy, you’ll employ’) and overbaked production.

In fact, Michael and Brian overegg the pudding at almost every opportunity. Too many songs descend in to ridiculous musical extravaganzas. The bossanova inflected ‘The Bully’ unexpectedly bursts in the second half with processional horns and marching band drum rolls. ‘Rock Dreams’ comes undone towards the end with a chorus of demented choir vocals that strongly remind me of the voices from The Beatles ‘Flying’. The hyperactive, scattergun arrangements nearly undid their debut but this approach feels more significantly detrimental on a record nearly double the length of ‘Do Hollywood’. The more understated harmonic touches on ‘Always in my Heart, Never in my Arms’ and particularly the coda to ‘The Student Becomes the Teacher’ speak to the Twigs true calling; not as stage school wannabes but as heirs apparent to The Beach Boy and Beatles.

Even so, their faults, if you want to categorise them as such, are endearing and stem from that genuine enthusiasm I gushed about earlier. The same instincts that led them down these roads are the same instincts that inspired the abandon and wonder inherent in their finest moments. They don’t just get by on giddy excitement either; their understanding of craft and there attention to detail is notable, particularly for anyone whose ever paid close attention to ‘Radio City’ or ‘Something / Anything’, classic albums of a similar ilk made by far more experienced artists, with significantly higher bank balances, in posh studios. Without meaning to be condescending, the fact that The Lemon Twigs produced a concept album as daring and accomplished as this, at their age, with their resources, is somewhat remarkable. ‘Go to School’ isn’t the masterpiece musical it desperately wants to be but it is something more precious – an unguarded, kooky snapshot of youth and a love letter to rock n roll dreams.