Sunday, November 02, 2008

Album review: Kaiser Chiefs - Off with Their Heads (4.5/5)

Kaiser Chiefs have settled into a comfortable strata of popularity. Not quite the breakouts that Arctic Monkeys have become, but big enough that Off with Their Heads, now album number three, was met with enough enthusiasm to debut at #2 on the UK albums chart last week, just behind AC/DC. I may be one of the few people who liked their second album Yours Truly, Angry Mob better than their debut, Employment (both made my year-end top 10 lists). Their attempt at something more serious didn't connect with the public as well; while "Ruby" was a #1 hit, none of their last album's other singles peaked higher than #19.

Last time I reviewed a Kaiser Chiefs album I compared them to The Killers, and the analogy continues to hold. Like that American band, album #3 finds Kaiser Chiefs employing a big-name co-producer--Mark Ronson--in an effort to recapture their first album's sense of energy and fun they abandoned in the name of "maturity" for album #2. Why Mark Ronson? He would at first blush seem like a strange choice--his sound being associated more with R&B and retro '60s soul than British pop/rock. But recall that last year he successfully covered the Chiefs' "Oh My God" with Lily Allen, giving the song a second appearance in the UK top 10. So did he turn the band into a five-man version of Amy Winehouse?

Of course not and the results are not disappointing. Off with Their Heads is a fun album, much of it fast and furious. "Spanish Metal" announces itself with dramatic booming bass and guitar before settling into mellow, warm keyboard chords. It's a darkly camp opening. "Never Miss a Beat" turns up the tempo and the guitars. It's the most fun the band's had since "I Predict a Riot," using a call-and-respond format for the verses and a great hook for the chorus ("take a look at the kids on the street, no they never miss a beat").

"Like It Too Much" throttles back a bit with tinkling pianos and a string arrangement courtesy of James Bond composer David Arnold, but gets its noisy moment during the heavy guitar bridge. Ronson's '60s influence shows here, with the heavy layering of sounds to produce a warm, rich sound. That '60s effect where you make a guitar sound a bit like an organ shows up on "You Want History," which also shows an '80s new wave influence. Same goes for "Can't Say What I Mean," which is a really great upbeat song.

"Good Days Bad Days" is refreshingly happy--very sunny '70s and silly (lyrics such as "sticks and stones and animal bones" repeated over and over). "Tomato in the Rain" is the quietest moment so far on the album, but I'd hardly call it serious, since it analogizes a vegetable and is backed by a woman's voice lightly singing "ahh..." "Half the Truth" uses the old-fashioned organ sounds punctuated by the more modern grungy guitars. Ricky Wilson's vocals veer toward spoken word here, punched up by rapper Sway.

Lily Allen shows up to contribute backing vocals to "Always Happens Like That," but ends up buried in the mix of piano, bass and clangy percussion. The percussion set stays in place with "Addicted to Drugs" (cowbells?), which references Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love" in the chorus (substituting "drugs"). This quirky number gets a boost of oddity from a short synthesizer effects middle section. The final track, "Remember You're a Girl," is a real surprise: a mellow, '70s-influenced love ballad sung not by Wilson but the band's drummer Nick Hodgson.

The short and sweet approach works well for this band--none of the songs cross the 4 minute mark, and many are under 3. There's a pleasing amount of warmth to this album, particularly from the rich strings arrangement of "Like It Too Much" and the acoustic guitar melody of "Remember You're a Girl." Such warmth is often associated with music being sappy, but this record is anything but, as it exudes upbeat attitude, even camp. Most of the best songs are in the first half, but the second half isn't bad. Overall, this is a very worthy effort--perhaps the band's best yet.

Best: Never Miss a Beat, Like It Too Much, Cant Say What I Mean, Good Days Bad Days, Spanish Metal, Remember You're a Girl


Chris B. said...

This review makes me want to listen more closely to this album.

It sounds like you like "Addicted to Drugs." I wonder if you'd like it more if it had more cowbell?

ww_adh said...

You're a cowbell!