The Kooks: Central Station, Wrexham. Tuesday January 23

The Kooks: Central Station, Wrexham. Tuesday January 23

Indie’s boyband bounce back with spanking new songs but minus a bassist

Welcoming back The Kooks, the first thing that strikes you is what a motley crew they are. ‘Boyband indie’? Pah. They are not merely the band that fashion overlooked: they’re the band that fashion would probably leave in a hot car with all the windows rolled up, go out shopping and forget about until three hours later, when fashion would have to make a teary call to paramedics while flopping individual Kook-corpses on to the pavement.

Hugh, with his country hat and natty waistcoat, must surely be rock’s premier gentry fisherman by now. Luke’s white shirt/vest combo is conic, but not necessarily in a good way, and his hair is now so matted, so tuck-thick with its own unkempt coarseness, that it’s in danger of ongealing like a rhino horn into some kind of natural helmet. And as

for Max, well…

Uh. Max isn’t here. And won’t be, ever again. Later this evening, the band’s tour manager shows us a statement about to be uploaded to the group’s MySpace: Max and the group have “parted company”. Or at least, the remaining Kooks have now moved in their own way. Later on, “no comment” is all the band will mouth on the matter. Their faces say a bit more: they curdle into an apologetic grimace that suggests we’re hitting at private stuff, stuff that cuts far deeper than the bubble of stardom, of interviewer/interviewee, generally allows – right into the tendons of

a bittersweet friendship.

Max, his willowy country-boy face, flaxen hair and Worzel Gummidge hat, his innocent mooning eyes pouting out of a thousand photos, has been airbrushed from Project Kooks. It happens, and it’s a move that has been telegraphed almost since the band began – Max has been caught in a revolving door: left mid-way through 2006 due to exhaustion, re-joined, then left again last year after another breakdown. In October, there was a trial separation, but with the band reuniting to record the album all seemed well. Tonight, however, the divorce is finalised. For Max, the future is unclear, but we hope he can put his troubles behind him.

Temporary replacement Dan looks the part, and somehow feels the part too. If you didn’t pay much attention, you’d probably imagine he had been there since day one. Which is handy, because right now, amid all the bloodshed, The Kooks have also got to come back. They went away as a sort of teenybopper La’s. Do they return as a twentysomething Cast?

Night one of their tour sees elbow room for the super-fans only in Wrexham’s Central Station. A long, thin, brick-built shed with ‘Hovis’ still carved into its humid walls, it’s exactly the sort of micro-venue in an ‘out-of-the-way’ place that big acts love as target practice before they hit the arenas.

Not that The Kooks need much by way of practice. Their live chops are sharper than they’ve been in a long time – making an album will do that to a band. The thing is, on first listen, no new songs tonight seem to match the high points of their debut for sheer pop loveability, though some do take a swipe at it.

Not falling into that category is ‘Mr Maker’, a blandly merry pure pop roundabout, similar to Oasis’ ‘Little James’, that would like to believe it’s gunning for a slot on the ‘White Album’. Complete with its reference to a Mean Mr Mustard-style fictional character called Mr Maker, who, uh, like, does stuff, it’s best filed under ‘ill-advised lurch towards Hoosierville’. Meanwhile, ‘Time Awaits’ is a sort of Lynyrd Skynyrd freebirding rock standard that’s solid yet unspectacular. Perhaps this is what Luke Pritchard meant when he said the new album was “more aggressive” when NME caught up with him in the studio a few weeks back. If so, it’s not quite accurate. Instead, having been reunited with producer Tony Hoffer, the band seem to have simply done that classic second album trick of bulking everything up: heaving out the wobbly-woozy charm to make way for a more brass-gonaded sound. Is this about to be their ‘Razorlight’? The songs that do get the veins on foreheads pulsing are the ones that stick closer to their more freewheeling past. The uninhibited ‘Do You Wanna’ is a fumble-with-a-bra-clasp-under-a-jumper sort of song, hinging on the line “do you wanna make love to me?”, all the while making eyes at Blondie.

The similarly girl-serenading ‘Always Where I Need To Be’ is not so much ‘Eddie’s Gun’, more ‘Eddie’s Howitzer’, taking the same two-chord ping-pong and building darker, richer overtones. It has a verse that borrows the moody baritone of Julian Casablancas, and a ‘doo-doo-doo’ chorus that draws on the supremely tuneful, totally English sense of melody that’s still their prettiest attribute.

Right now, as befitting a band about to follow-up a smash debut, The Kooks seem balanced between two worlds. As his band bow out with a romping ‘Sofa Song’, Luke Pritchard, dressed in white and long of locks – is held aloft on the barriers by two bouncers – looking like second generation Britpop’s answer to Jesus. To see him bubbling over with his natural enthusiasm, he seems like a man in the mood for resurrection. Whether that means winning more hearts or merely shifting more units, time will soon tell.

Gavin Haynes