[6 March 2012]
The path that led to the new Kaiser Chiefs album, Start the Revolution Without Me might not have been fraught with the same corporate tension as Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or the threats of legal action and long periods of lethargy as the Stone Roses’ Second Coming, but it’s still every bit as winding.
Kaiser Chiefs have lived inside a Britpop bubble since their debut album, Employment, arrived on the scene in 2005. It wasn’t the first go-round for the Kaiser Chiefs, of course. They began life as Parva, a short-lived incarnation given a quick burial after their record label folded. The band regrouped with a host of impossibly catchy terrace anthems and found themselves the heroes of those who either missed or lamented the loss of the mid-‘90s English aesthetic.
The band has stuck with the formula ever since, tweaking it here and there but ultimately relying on the strengths and weaknesses of their wry pop-craft. In the UK, the plan has seen relatively diminishing commercial returns come the Kaiser Chiefs’ way: 2007’s Yours Truly, Angry Mob was the high water mark on the charts, with both the album and its lead single (“Ruby”) hitting the toppermost of the poppermost. But it sold fewer than a third the amount of Employment. Off With Their Heads, the band’s 2008 album was produced by Mark Ronson, but did little to stop the precipitous slide.
And so the Kaiser Chiefs responded with a hiatus of sorts; as with many young bands who settle into a record-tour-record-tour rhythm, they found themselves in need of a breather. It lasted more than two years, but was over before anyone realized it might be. Which brings us to mid-2011 and the beginning of the Start the Revolution Without Me saga.
With little advance fanfare, the Kaiser Chiefs returned with a grand scheme, uploading 20 new songs to their website in early June of that year and allowing fans to create their own albums comprising 10. Other fans would be allowed to peruse those creations, and if purchased, the initial compiler would receive a royalty of one British Pound Note. Members of the band contributed their own compilations, with their royalty going to charity. A few weeks later, an official 13-track release was issued as The Future Is Medieval.
The Kaiser Chiefs had attempted to make inroads in the U.S. before their break, hoping a tour supporting Green Day would bring them legions of new fans. But then they disappeared and the momentum failed.
The Future Is Medieval wasn’t released on this side of the Atlantic, and so with a North American tour looming – including high profile appearances at SXSW and Coachella – the Kaiser Chiefs reassembled some of the 20 songs from 2011 again, added one new one and called the album Start the Revolution Without Me.
If your album is going to share its name with a film, you could do worse than the 1970 historical parody starring Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland. Loosely based on events surrounding the French Revolution, Start the Revolution Without Me predated the ‘80s rash of switched-at-birth flicks by over a decade and in addition to giving a boost to the powdered wig industry also gave Orson Welles a chance to flex his narration muscles. Whether we’re meant to draw a connection between the film and the album is unclear; it’s tricky enough to consider the songs here without comparing them to prior releases, so contemplating where Charles and Claude Coupé fit into the picture is unlikely to yield rewards.
Listening to Start the Revolution Without Me and forgetting The Future Is Medieval is easy enough because it has the feel of an album proper. The Kaiser Chiefs have sometimes been dismissed as lightweight pop wusses, to which I’d reply, “So what?” Though the radio often tries to convince us otherwise, pop songs don’t necessarily have to feature vocal histrionics or lazy guest appearances from Busta Rhymes. And that’s where the value in a band like the Kaiser Chiefs really lies. Their songs, for the most part, are difficult to not sing along to, no matter how unpopular that might make you during the morning commute.
Start the Revolution Without Me draws its title from a lyric to “Cousin in the Bronx”, a song which opens like the Charlatans’ Clash-lite ode to the city before it, “N.Y.C. (There’s No Need to Stop)”, with the sounds of the streets and police sirens. The song arrives midway through Start the Revolution Without Me, often the refuge to space fillers on other albums. Here, it’s one of the album’s strongest tracks, with the sort of chorus one can imagine a stadium full of faithful fans singing along with, and with a slinky guitar possibly turned up to entice the U.S. market.
On previous efforts, the music of Kaiser Chiefs has seen the message delivered with the smirking vocals of Ricky Wilson and the quirky keyboards of Nick “Peanut” Baines. Start the Revolution Without Me doesn’t get rid of those features, though the guitars of Andrew “Whitey” White and the drums of Nick Hodgson are generally higher in the mix than before. It’s not an unpleasing result, as on “Problem Solved” or “Little Shocks”, which served as the first official taste of the Future Is Medieval material last year.
Hodgson also emerges here as a lead vocalist, singing the anthemic “Man on Mars” and the heartachy “If You Will Have Me” with enough weedy Lennonesque pathos that the notion of a solo album by a drummer wouldn’t be the worst idea ever. The newest track, “On the Run,” was worth waiting around for, a Frankenstein’s monster created from all the strengths of the Kaiser Chiefs.
If they can’t make a dent in the U.S. market in 2012, the Kaiser Chiefs can’t blame the quality of Start the Revolution Without Me, a collection that manages to overcome the cobbled-together history of the material to become one of the band’s most complete-sounding collections since Employment. It’s very British with enough American influence in the grooves that it’s worthy of comparisons to other bands who wore that mantle in the past like the Kinks and Blur.