There’s this great game we play sometimes down the pub on a Thursday, after we’ve dotted the i’s on the Tracks page and legalled Peter Robinson Vs for another week. It’s called Who’s In Your Triptych Of Evil? and basically involves each of us putting arguing which band has committed the most heinous crimes against indie. By which we mean who, under an ever-thinning punk-rock guise of skinny jeans and stupid hair, has made the most cynical play for mainstream adulation with another bunch of brainless MOR guitar pap this week? Needless to say, Razorlight, The Fratellis and The Pigeon Detectives are often held up as prime examples. One band, however, for whom debate on the subject regularly rages well into the night are The Kooks. Agreed, on paper they seem like the obvious candidate to take pole position on that triangle of doom – what with the Brit school ‘star-academy’ background, the factory line procession of members, the perfectly tousled ‘just slept in a gutter with some groupies’ locks… But, well, you just try not humming along to ‘Naïve’ after a few vodka and limes.
That Lily Allen and former Sugababe sourpuss Mutya Buena, two of Britain’s most creative female solo pop acts, chose to cover it is credit to its classic status. As, presumably, are the 1.5million album sales to people able to look past The Kooks’ ‘unauthentic’ exterior and endless schmindie derision to embrace debut ‘Inside In/Inside Out’. And, while no-one back in NME’s local ever gets so pissed as to argue there’s much art to Luke Pritchard’s tunes, we’ll rarely make it to last orders without begrudgingly admitting his master craftsmanship. Why are we telling you all this? So you realise that we’re as disappointed with the mark at the end of this review as we expect the band will be when they see it.
The first thing that strikes you about ‘Konk’ is that it certainly isn’t the “more aggressive” follow-up Luke Pritchard promised in interviews earlier this year. What it – perhaps inevitably – is, though, is an attempt to take ‘Inside In/Inside Out’’s success to the next, Razorlight-sized level. Unfortunately, it fails at that too. Following the departure of bassist Max Rafferty in January – shortly after sessions for the album had been completed – ‘Konk’ is the sound of a band in disarray, unsuccessfully attempting to hold things together. Not that you’d necessarily know from album opener ‘See The Sun’: unlike the rest of ‘Konk’ it fizzes with the carefree abandon, the lovestruck emotion, the giddy melodies and rousing lyrics of their previous high points.
But that’s where the fun stops. In fact, it’s fair to say that ‘Konk’ is home to a litany of duff tracks. For starters, ‘Mr Maker’ is brainless Britpop-by-numbers. “Mr Maker he’s got it made/A beautiful wife and a baby on the way” sings the increasingly jaded-sounding Pritchard, showcasing jarringly formulaic lyrics over a jarringly formulaic tune. The Kooks’ melodic simplicity has worked in the past (see previous single ‘Ooh La’ for evidence) but when it’s so straightforward it sounds like the theme tune to a toddlers TV programme you know a wrong turn’s been taken. This new-found lyrical weakness is also painfully evident on ‘One Last Time’, on which they resort to spelling out the alphabet for lack of anything else to sing about. Even more grating than the lyrics, though, is the slurred voice in which Pritchard delivers them. Presumably it’s a ploy to sound half-cut and, ergo, more like a proper rock band. But over production this glossy and expensive it’s not fooling anyone.
Then there’s ‘Sway’, hyped as one of the album’s big tracks, but in reality merely a mess of cod emotion and tired bombast. There’s nothing wrong with an epic rock ballad per se, but ‘Sway’ just doesn’t quite have the reach needed to tug on the heart strings. Emotion works best for The Kooks when they strip things down rather than build them up. Their debut’s acoustic opener ‘Seaside’ was one of the album’s most touching moments because it was a minimalist affair, constructed from Pritchard’s whispered voice and a plaintively plucked guitar alone.
It’s a trick they only seem to remember by ‘Konk’’s final track, ‘Tick Of Time’ – a luxuriant acoustic number smothered in harmonies and with a hazy late-night jam feel, which has more feeling in a few simple strums of guitar than in the rest of the album combined. The questions remain: why are these genuinely affecting moments are so few and far between? Why have this bunch of consummate professionals been so strongly hit by second album syndrome? Perhaps those 1.5million album sales
went to their head after all. It’s certainly affected their judgement. Pritchard previously claimed they had over 80 songs written for the new album. Eighty songs? And they chose these?
What’s clear is that they’ve lost the songwriterly knack they originally wielded with abandon and replaced it with clichés and a foggy palimpsest of what they once had. We recommend they search high and low for that spark of brightness in time for album three.