Listening to Employment over the last few days has left me with an undeniable and disappointing lethargy. I'm just not getting it.
It would be impossible to ignore the Kaiser Chiefs' similarities to Franz Ferdinand, even if you somehow managed to avoid the endless stream of magazine hype pieces and promotional spots that ceaselessly tout the fact. They're both from the UK, for one (although they're from the much more mundane quarters of Leeds, as opposed to Franz Ferdinand's Scotland). Both bands play somewhat derivative but endearingly energetic rock and roll that also owes more than a passing debt to the rhythmic vigor of '90s house. Both groups even went so far as to take their names from World War I-era historical figures.
While it may have seemed serendipitous at the time when Franz Ferdinand chose the Chiefs to be their opening act during a late 2004 UK tour, it may have been, in hindsight, a big mistake. The fact is that rock critics and journalists are not, by nature, the most imaginative fellows. If the comparison was hard to avoid simply by nature of their similar attributes, the fact that the Scots took the Chiefs under their proverbial wing has undoubtedly cemented the comparison in the minds of every living rock critic, ensuring that the group will never be able to live it down. Hell, I like to think that I'm smarter than the average bear, but here I am talking about it myself.
I am a musical egalitarian who lives in constant hope that the next CD I get will be the one that knocks my socks off. As much as possible I try to disassociate prior critical hype from my reaction to a new group -- it's worked wonders in terms of helping me to appreciate overrated but fundamentally decent bands like the Strokes, the White Stripes and Pavement. But listening to Employment over the last few days has left me, for the most part, with an undeniable and disappointing lethargy. I'm just not getting it. Another slightly less flattering analogy springs to mind -- if Franz Ferdinand were Pearl Jam, these guys would be the Stone Temple Pilots.
Which is not to say that the Stone Temple Pilots were a bad group. They had some really good years in the mid-'90s, after they found their own songwriting voice but before they fell down the rabbit-hole of creeping rock-star bloat. But the Stone Temple Pilots were terribly mediocre at the beginning, buffetted by endless comparisons to superior bands and tarred with a reputation for insincerity that dogged them for the entirety of their existence.
The Kaiser Chiefs are not a bad group either, just terribly mediocre. For every good song on this album, there's another that slides in one ear and falls out the other. Mostly I found myself resorting to the hoariest of rock cliches, the "spot the influence" guessing game... which is never a good sign, because that means I was bored enough that I needed to keep myself interested.
"I Predict a Riot" has gotten all the press, but the real break-out track of this album is also the first song, "Everyday I Love You Less and Less". The album begins with a crisp and angular synthesizer riff, backed by a martial drum drum line that gives the song an irresistable appeal. Somehow singer Ricky Wilson manages to sound like both a cad and a loving son simultaneously, singing lines like "Oh, and my parents love me, / Oh, and my girlfriend loves me" with just the right mixture of bile and insousiance. For the duration of this first track, the theoretical ideal of the Kaiser Chiefs comes together in a beautiful package.
But it starts to fall apart soon after that. The aforementioned "I Predict a Riot" manages to evoke much less of the attitude that it so palpably aspires to, succeeding in conjuring just a faint phantom of the early Elvis Costello vibe they undoubtedly had in mind. Honestly, it sounds like nothing so much as the Electric Six trying to ape Costello, albeit with a bit less brio than the Electric Six would probably have brought to the task.
But despite a flabby middle, the album ends well, with penultimate track "Caroline, No" managing to achieve a bit more of the energy and imagination evident on "Everyday I Love You..." It doesn't really have anything to do with the Beach Boy's "Caroline, No", but it points the Kaisers in the direction of a more psychedelic and muscular sound than the one that is evident throughout the rest of the album. This is perhaps the strongest track on the album, and if they wrote more songs with this much presence their second album would be a lot more consistent than their first.
A large part of the problem might have something to do with the fact that the production manages to render much of the music inert. Whereas, to pick a totally random example, Franz Ferdinand's sound was just slightly harsh and angular, with a heaping dollop of New Wave sheen applied to make the bass drum pop and the high-hat snap, the Kaisers are saddled with a stolidly pedestrian style. Stephen Street has worked with the likes of the Smiths and Blur, so you would think he knew his way around the mixing board -- but somewhere along the line this got real boring. There's no telling how much the material could have been aided by a more imaginative mixing.
But, as I said, the Kaisers are hardly a bad group. The most surpising thing, for me, was the fact that their songwriting and presentation is deeply indebted to Andy Partridge and XTC. Considering how deeply the '80s have been mined for inspiration during the last few years, its quite surprising that Partridge's influence as a songwriter has been mostly ignored. Of course, XTC was an ambitious combo, and anyone wanting to follow in their footsteps would have to do a lot more than merely ape a certain guitar sound. Wilson specifically seems to be harkening back to Skylarking with his high tenor, and every time he switches intonation in the middle of a long vowel sound you can't help but notice the resemblance. The fact that Walker is also a clever wordsmith with a knack for cute rhymes places him well in the established tradition of precocious English songwriters -- but it's worth remembering that neither XTC or Elvis Costello or Pulp ever had overwhelming success on this side of the pond.
Given their obvious ambition, there is every possibility that the Kaiser Chiefs could yet become a group to watch. But as of right now, their debut album is unformed and flabby, crippled by a torpid mix and irregular songwriting. If I were them, I'd spend less time reading Thomas Mann (really, the "Pneumothorax" reference in "Saturday Night" was a dead giveaway) and more time trying to write some catchy songs.