Employment Label: Universal
It’s a fine line between emulating your heroes and copying them. Interpol and Elefant clearly love Joy Division, but Jesus, have they ever heard any other bands? The Futureheads’ pogo pop is lots of fun, but utterly one-dimensional. People like to kick Keane around, but at least they have their own identity, as opposed to being ‘that Joy Division band,’ or ‘that Gang of Four band.’ Even Bart Simpson recognized this dilemma when he once said, “Everybody’s acting just like me. So why does it suck?”
Which brings us to the Kaiser Chiefs, the latest band to make the press do cartwheels. They’re thieves too, of course, but their influences cast a far wider net than any of their peers. If they must be compared to one band, it’s Blur, the Essex dogs who, like the Chiefs, pillaged all forms of English music but did it in a way that, even when stealing Bowie songs note for note, still sounded like Blur. Variety is more than the spice of life when it comes to music; it’s the key to longevity, and the Kaiser Chiefs understand that. Oasis, on the other hand, did not. And there they are.
Listening to the Chiefs’ debut album, Employment, it’s easy to picture the band’s record collection. More than one member owns Blur classics Modern Life Is Rubbish and Parklife. Someone has the Jam’s All Mod Cons and Supergrass’ I Should Coco. Someone else, most likely singer Ricky Wilson, is a fan of widescreen popsters like Pulp and Scott Walker. Yet this isn’t some ‘90s Britpop carbon copy rehash. There’s a strong post-punk current throughout, and the entire back half is a love letter to ‘60s pop. Of all of the bands to come out of the UK in the last year that will allegedly save us, the Chiefs stand the best chance of going the distance. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Employment is good, occasionally brilliant. But it’s not perfect, and that’s okay. Blur’s first record wasn’t that good either, nor Radiohead’s, for that matter.
They certainly make a strong case for themselves with the first two songs, though. “Everyday I Love You Less and Less” is a supercharged kiss-off (“Everyday I love you less and less / I can’t believe once you and me did sex… It makes me sick to think of you undressed”) that acts as a perfect setup to the brilliant Single of the Year candidate “I Predict a Riot.” This is one of those lightning-in-a-bottle moments, like Pulp’s “Common People.” Great verse, la-la-la bridge, and an incendiary chorus. It’s the best song from the UK since “Clocks.”
Things don’t let up much from there, at least not at first. “Modern Way” and “Saturday Night” bear the hallmarks of vintage Blur, which makes it no coincidence that unofficial “fifth Blur” Stephen Street produced the former, while former Blur guitarist Graham Coxon appears on the latter. (Granted, it’s Graham’s motorcycle that appears, but you get the point.) “Modern Way” positively reeks of Modern Life’s “Colin Zeal,” while “Saturday Night” is the band’s own “Jubilee.” The exquisitely titled “Na Na Na Na Naa” is a little snotty and a lot brash, and surely, somewhere in England, Supergrass are beaming with pride. “Born to Be a Dancer” is their Pulp moment, overflowing with melodrama.
Which gets us to track 9, and that is where things get dicey. “Time Honoured Tradition” is a spot-on impression of mid-period Kinks, but it’s bookended by the weak “What Did I Ever Give You” and misguidedly titled “Caroline, Yes.” Album closer “Team Mate,” a ballad in the vein of (again) Blur’s “Resigned,” comes closer, but doesn’t close the deal.
But so what? Expectations are too high for debut albums these days. If a band does come out of the gate with an instant classic, then huzzah to them. But it should never be expected. In fact, the music business as a whole would be a whole lot healthier, and music in general a hell of a lot better, if the labels lowered their sales expectations and demands, and just let bands evolve like their forefathers were allowed to do. Imagine if Elton John and Prince faced the same label pressure that Kaiser Chiefs and Franz Ferdinand face today. It is quietly likely that, under those circumstances, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Purple Rain never see the light of day. So let’s cut the kids some slack. Employment is a hell of a first step, and with any luck, their second, third, and fourth steps will be even better.