Kaiser Chiefs' third full-length finds them polished and preened more than ever before, but still recognisably cartoonish.
Kaiser Chiefs have always been a somewhat cartoonish band. A moniker derived from a South African football team, a porkpie hat-clad keyboardist named Peanut, a singer who resembles the zany younger brother of Elbow's Guy Garvey, and songs depicting comedic rowdy nights out in their hometown amid the buzz of gang-chanted choruses and squiggly Moog have already, two albums in, led to the idea of the Leeds outfit approaching anything with a full quota of po-faces seem faintly preposterous.
Not that you sense that they would have it any other way. For the Kaisers, it's always been a sense of fun first, any latent politics a slow second. Off with Their Heads, their third full-length, patently won't change that, and most probably isn't intended to. It is, for the most part, an album of lively, catchy pop rock. Preceding single "Never Miss a Beat" is made of the same infectious hooks that made "I Predict a Riot" and "Oh My God" such smashes, while "Like It Too Much" and "Half the Truth" boast their own bona fide sing-along choruses.
Nonetheless, there's still a feeling of attempted curve ball about a couple of Off with Their Heads' offerings. In the case of opener "Spanish Metal", which blends glossed-up garage rock stylings with slightly cringeworthy attempts at pop metal wankery, this reeks of a conceited attempt to do something wholly unexpected -- an impression that track's position on the album only serves to reinforce. Likewise, rapper Sway's fleeting cameo on "Half the Truth" sounds thoroughly shoehorned, and "Tomato in the Rain", the closest we get here to wistful maturity, places too much stock in its half-baked chorus and tacky Phoenix Nights keyboards.
But the album as a whole exhibits development, if not necessarily progression. While Mark Ronson will no doubt gleam some of the credit for this in his role as co-producer, Off with Their Heads is no pop-mogul-bred reinvention of the Kaisers, who instead simply sound more relaxed than on Employment and more joyful than on Yours Truly, Angry Mob. It's a confident album -- confidence, no doubt, bred of having a rapturously received debut and a below-par sophomore that still sold shedloads -- that will inevitably go down a storm live, at least, in spite of of its studio failings.
In any case, the most obvious of those failings is not a new issue. Time and again, Ricky Wilson comes across as striving to achieve something lyrically higher than is perhaps his calling. His wit remains intact on the likes of "Can't Say What I Mean", where, no doubt aware of his own indie-pop hero quotability, he quips, "Nothing that I say is so important that it can't be shortened to fit on a badge". The problem arises when Wilson broaches broader issues, as on "Never Miss a Beat", a sort of winkingly ironic social critique lambasting those pesky yoofs of today. Tongue in cheek or not, "Want do you want for tea? I want crisps!" is a fucking awful lyric.
Notwithstanding this point -- after all, no one's looking to the Kaisers for social critiques anyway -- there are still a handful of genuinely awkward moments on Off with Their Heads. "Good Days Bad Days" is a clunky Ian Dury-esque misfire, its simplistic melodies and trite chorus tiring quickly. "Always Happens Like That" seems similarly slight, deficient in ideas and plethoric in, alas, cowbell. And you can't help but wonder why the Robert Palmer-aping "Addicted to Drugs" didn't strike the band as being the laughably bad idea it patently is.
Gripes aside, Off with Their Heads is far from disastrous. Its first half is genuinely brimming with energy in a way that promises a return to the joyful pop of the Kaisers Chiefs' debut. It does, however, tail off badly, and the relatively quick turnaround since Angry Mob therein, perhaps, raises its ugly head. As a consequence, the likes of "Tomato in the Rain" and "Addicted to Drugs" strike as the dregs of a session forced to bear more fruit than was naturally forthcoming. There are enough rambunctious sing-alongs and infectious hooks to more than placate the plentiful Kaiser converts. But the rest of us might well start to wonder -- if Employment was really the iPod generation's Parklife, as some would have it -- when the Kaiser Chiefs are going to make their own Blur.