The moment ripe for Strangefolk may have already come and passed. This is only the third full-length release from classicist Brit-rockers Kula Shaker and their first since 1999’s Peasants, Pigs, and Astronauts. 1996 was the year of their smash debut K, which precociously blended throwback psychedelia and more formal classic rock quotations into chart-topping gold. The jangly, Sanskrit-infused “Tattva” tore up the UK.
That was over a decade ago. Since then, much has changed. Pop music’s take on the zeitgeist has undergone various transformations, in part spurred on by the tumultuous Bush presidency. But even that era is nearing its twilight. The global anti-war movement has lulled and the minds of many are now optimistically fixed on the future. With Barack Obama as the toast of the world, Bush-rage almost strikes an old-hat note. So here Kula Shaker are in 2008, bemoaning the war-battered Middle East and shedding tears for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The grim repercussions of both blunders live on. But the protestors’ ball has shut down, regardless of Kula Shaker’s earnest arrival.
Strangefolk is not a wall-to-wall statement album, but the whiff from its political forays lingers heavily throughout the accompanying Britpop, mod rock, and mystic flourishes. With literal imagery, “Die for Love” condemns America’s misadventures abroad and laments the scaremongering inherent to the “war on terror”. Set to marching piano chords and a high-pitched twinkle of guitars, leadman Crispian Mills takes aim: “Don’t want to be wrapped up in a flag / Or spill my blood upon the sand.” He then moves from the obvious to the spectacularly glib by calling on the West to engage its enemies with music. “Die for Love” also sounds dangerously like Travis’ work on 12 Memories, adding sonic staleness to its well-worn sloganeering. The Dylan-esque narrative of “Hurricane Season” (very much in the Desire vein) is a lyrical improvement, more indirect and dispassionate. But Katrina, its inspiration, hit over two years ago and, for better or worse, has faded as a resonant talking point. The world now looks ahead while Mills, a long dormant rock star, catches up on his political dissent.
Strangefolk is dotted with pockets of gloom. But the settings shift. Nations at war change to lovers in conflict. Natural disasters give way to internal angst. As a vocalist, Mills can stir up these tense and complicated moods with ease. He nails the pristinely groove-studded swooner “Fool That I Am” and elsewhere deploys the loose timbre of his voice to rich effect. As a lyricist, he struggles to inject flesh and blood into the often dusky contours of Strangefolk. The twilight guitar-thick “Out on the Highway” vaguely contemplates premature death, the open road, and karma all at once. “Shadowlands” ups the moody tone with its slow-burning pianos, deep bass tugs, and Mills’ desperate pinings. Both convey disquiet and uncertainty. They also fatally call to mind Damon Albarn’s standout super-group project The Good, the Bad, and the Queen. On it, Albarn convincingly captured the ground-level pulse of London amidst a despised war overseas while, here, Mills imparts a less vivid impression. The doleful outlook is there. He just can’t summon the words to lend it full expression.
Kula Shaker excel when they ditch the drab and go for energy and living colors. Swaggering guitar pieces, hard-edged rhythms, and world-pop experimentation were the driving forces behind K’s surefooted appeal. The best of Strangefolk nods to the band’s strong suits and moves ever so slightly beyond the past.
The trippy mod jogger “Dr. Kitt” swipes from the Doors and early Pink Floyd, among others, on its way to a psychedelic coolness that’s proudly and expertly kitsch-y. The superb “Song of Love/ Narayana”, though, is a modern dub-rock thriller. Guided by the light rumble of Paul Winter-Hart’s drum kit and Harry Broadbent’s flashy keys, it twitches and pushes forward teasingly until the bridge kicks in and its skyward horns erupt triumphantly. The rest is a propulsive chase, as Mills exclaims “Do you feel another energy / I feel a power growing”. The jollier celebration arrives with “Great Dictator (Of the Free World)”, an Art Brut-like rant against Bush that finds Mills assuming W.’s identity and unashamedly confessing his sins: war, ANWR (or the desire to drill there, anyway), Guantanamo, and so on. It’s a sing-a-long of smiles and frills, yet it also cuts to the core of Kula Shaker’s problematic return.
“Great Dictator” is what Strangefolk could have been more of and exactly what it didn’t need to be in the first place. The revelry, the youthfully sardonic spirit, and the rip-roaring rock—all aces for Kula Shaker, and all woefully underplayed. If they had accented these strengths, Strangefolk might have been truly defiant: a late Bush-era album that thwarts and transcends the clinging shadows with vigor and panache. But the mere existence of “Great Dictator” and its tiredly overzealous politics is too much already. Too much and too late for 2008, a year when something like Strangefolk is dated upon release.
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