At the very least, the Kicks live up to their name as their major label debut Hello Hong Kong is full of cheap thrills and senseless fun. The Kicks have learned the simple, but undeniable pleasure, of combining big crunchy guitars with even bigger pop hooks. In a musical landscape where genres are multiplying at an astounding rate, there is something refreshing about a plain old rock band that produces songs that you could conceivably hear on the radio. Still, Hello Hong Kong is difficult to wholeheartedly recommend for reasons that have little to do with the band’s obvious musical and songwriting abilities.
The Kicks’ lack of originality is not, as some have suggested, their fatal flaw. The Kicks have not made it their mission to rewrite any rules, instead they wish to revive a time when rock and roll was supposed to be fun. Of all the major figures in the last “rebirth of the rock”, circa 2002, only the Hives seemed able to have any fun. Unlike the Hives, the Kicks seem perfectly able to indulge in rock and roll cliches without having to self-consciously point out that they know that they are indulging in rock and roll clichés. Fast, fun songs like “Satellite” and “Jet” are examples of pure bubblegum grunge that sound as if they were trying to become the Monkees to Nirvana’s Beatles. It is interesting to hear the Kicks trying to revamp a style of music best known for depression and catharsis and transforming it into something more upbeat. They are refreshingly up-front about their pop ambitions, particularly on the anthem “Pop Star Radio Crown”, where they lament that “the pop star radio crown is gone”. In the context of this attempt to reclaim rock and roll from the jaded “trust fun kids” that “rule this town” (“Radar”), even the Kicks’ occasional youthful missteps are forgivable. The Kicks are not afraid to sing lines as cringe-worthy as “Here she comes / Maybe this time she’ll smile at me / Then she goes out with a girl / How can it be? / Sell out, sell out” (“Ninety-Nine”).
So the Kicks have a mission, of sorts, to return to days where rock and pop were not antonyms. This is praiseworthy in a musical climate where people actually refer to themselves, and others, as “rockist” or “popist”. Unfortunately, Hello Hong Kong makes for an unsuccessful mission statement. More than half of the songs are cribbed from their debut album and given an utterly “professional” production that manages to dull the exuberance at the heart of their musical philosophy. Many of the songs sound like they have been processed through a “make them sound like the Foo Fighters” filter, which makes the Kicks seem more derivative than they actually are. Since the Kicks haven’t been given a chance to find a fully original sound before being signed to the majors, and the too-professional production robs them of the youthful energy that would be the saving grace of a more amateur album, their “big break” record seems doomed to commercial and critical indifference.
If Hello Hong Kong fails to live up to TVT’s expectations, we can only hope that they give them the chance to develop. The album’s highlights, “Bomb” and “Pretty One”, show that the Kicks can successfully alter their sound by incorporating, respectively, pure power pop and ‘80s-style crooning. Occasional bursts of synthesizers add a little spice to otherwise generic riffs. If they were given a little bit more time to develop before being snatched up by TVT, they probably could have created a major-label debut that could have actually brought back the “pop star radio crown”. They still have time, of course, but only if they don’t suffer the fate of a thousand alt-rock bands from the ‘90s, all of whom who managed to create worthy sophomore albums cruelly ignored after their heavily-hyped debuts failed to explode.