The return of Kula Shaker back in 2006 was greeted with the same kind of reaction to any reformation by forgotten ’90s acts: surprise, followed by a brief flutter of excitement, followed by gradually-increasing indifference. Predictably, Kula Shaker’s live dates to mark their return were nostalgia fests. They brought in small crowds interested in hearing new material, but the majority were there to relive that brief period from 1996 to 1998 when Crispian Mills’ boys were infiltrating the Britpop-saturated ma’nstream and knocking on the door of superstardom.
Pilgrim’s Progress is Kula Shaker’s second album since their 2006 reformation, following the patchy “comeback” that was 2007’s Strangefolk. It finds them – save for the Eastern, sitar-centric influences that were dominant to the point of annoying during their heyday – well and truely within their comfort zone, albeit with a more stripped-down sound, and settling into a ’60s, psychedelic, sunny folk-rock groove.
Moving on from plagiarizing Ravi Shankar’s back catalog does them plenty of favors. For a start it means they’re not returning to the limelight and lining themselves up for another bout of ridicule. Secondly, there’s subsequently much less a connection between the Kula Shaker of 2010 and the Kula Shaker who released the album K in 1996, an album that, when listened to now, sounds incredibly dated.
Opening ode “Peter Pan RIP” is fantastic. As baroque as it is twee, it’s melodic, and to those unaware of Kula Shaker’s past, it’ll seem completely ridiculous. It sees the band now completely free from their shackles of old. This, like the rest of the album, is also completely devoid of the punky, Britpop power-chord rush you’ll find on 1996’s “Hey Dude” or 1997’s “Hush”. There are no scene-chasing statements of intent here.
The lighter arrangements and a more mature, considered approach make “Ophelia” and “Ruby” a joy. There are echoes of both the Byrds and Donovan throughout. It’s a relief to hear this new, more considered approach brings with it lyrics less associated with politics and war, save for the almost-playful “Cavalry”, and more concerned with love – and lust. “I’m gonna bring you down / on my choo-choo-train”, Mills sings on “Barbara Ella”, a tune that’s not a million miles away from some of the Zombies’ most sultry moments. Whatever he’s on about, it sounds a wee bit kinky.
After a pleasant yet seemingly pointless instrumental (“When A Brave Needs A Maid”) it’s left to the finale “Winter’s Call” to flaunt Kula Shaker’s love of eccentricity. A lingering verse that leaves the summery folk-rock vibes behind gives way to epic guitar solos and even a dramatic, haunting church organ solo.
It’s the only point on Pilgrim’s Progress’ where the less-is-more policy doesn’t apply. Yet it’s a fitting end to an album that does a lot for Kula Shaker’s credibility. Sadly, at this stage in their career, it’s unlikely they’ll be making deep inroads into the charts. Better to remain a great cult act than a bad successful one.
That’s what is most comforting about listening to this album: as controversial their opinion (going by their choice of musical directions for the past 15 years) that George Harrison was the most talented Beatle, Mills and co have grown up gracefully, at their own speed, and leaving us with the opinion that, after fashion, fads, and column inches about misunderstood Nazi comments are all gone and forgotten, all that matters is the music.