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Music Review: Kaiser Chiefs – Off With Their Heads

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Kaiser Chiefs' third offering, Off With Their Heads, is nothing short of Britpop bliss. While countless critics will undoubtedly shower this record with endless comparisons to the typical cast of British stalwarts (think the Stone Roses, The Kinks, The Jam, etc.) — and truly those influences are evident — the intrinsic value of this record lies not in its influences but in its potential to push a stale, repetitious, and endlessly imitative music scene forward into the new realms of 21st century progressiveness and compositional possibility.

Following in the recent trend of hybrid collaborations between young and innovative producers and notably successful artists (i.e. Danger Mouse with Beck, The Black Keys and Gorillaz), Kaiser Chiefs, working under the direction of Grammy Award-winning producer Mark Ronson, have found the perfect partner to enhance the lofty pop craftsmanship demonstrated on their outstanding debut release, Employment.

Together on Off With Their Heads, these two creative entites are able to expound upon the base concepts of Kaiser Chief's initial release and the increased musical range and darker maturity demonstrated on sophomore offering Yours Truly, Angry Mob, to create a product with depth, innovation, and accessibility that will, in retrospect, be remembered as one of the forerunners in the blossoming of the mainstream marriage between electronic music and the various sub-genres of rock.

From its opening guitar notes to its beautifully serene finish, Off With Their Heads maintains a successful continuity without sacrificing variety. Merging Ronson's driving rhythmic devices and endless sonic enhancements with the well-established pop sensibilities of Kaiser Chiefs' perfectly crafted hooks and sharp lyrical twists, Of With Their Heads reclaims the progressive approach to pop music — the embracing of technology to produce sound — first forged by the likes of Phil Spector and George Martin.

Where Employment's sardonic tones were coated with a light and almost jovial humor, backed by a more minimalist, New Wave approach to their electronic leanings, this album features lead singer Ricky Wilson slyly working a more cynical and topical brand of commentary over thicker and more complex constructions of sound. Laced with biting humor that asserts an authority and command and establishes a more mature relevance to the tracks, this new voice separates the group from your average Britpop band writing songs simply for the fleeting recognition of the NME charts.

When Wilson quips "it's cool to know nothing", it's obvious Kaiser Chiefs want to raise the social consciousness of their listeners. While for some bands this may mean the proverbial "party" is over, and the dreaded revelation of self-importance has set in, for Kaiser Chiefs it only indicates the intelligence quotient of said party just got a little higher — but that's no reason not to dance your ass off .

Ronson and the Kaiser Chiefs truly strike a symbiotic balance between the band's commitment to lyrically rich and relevant pop music and Ronson's penchant for enhancing every aspect of the music he produces to its fullest capacity.

In "Never Miss a Beat" — containing the aforementioned lyric as well as notable backing vocals by (Ronson alum) Lily Allen — Ronson's beats and layers are featured prominently alongside Andrew White's slick-but-heavy riffs reminiscent of the crunchier tones on his Yours Truly, Angry Mob work, creating a synthesis of hard rock and melody-driven dance music rarely seen in this genre and even less commonly mastered.

The infectious "I Like It Too Much" is perhaps the prime example of how Ronson's contributions elevate the band's pop sensibilities to a completely new plane of construction and quality. Adding a variety of complimentary sounds from pianos and a string section to the layered background vocals, the result is a pop anthem far more complex, intricate, and intriguing then even their more raucous staple, the pub opus "I Predict a Riot".

This effect is also used very effectively on the beautiful "Tomato in the Rain" and album closer "Remember You're a Girl".  Ronson's subtle electronics on the former lend ambiance to Wilson's hauntingly deep vocals and White's simple and enticing acoustic rhythms. The latter track pursues the melodic angle to further extremes, combining soft, layered vocals with a Beatlesque rhythm and hook. While this track will inevitably bring comparisons to some long lost Beatles/Kinks b-side, this shouldn't detract from the track's unabashed love of melody. It's a song reminiscent of a time before pop music began to connote lazy, poor quality music.

Then there are those times when Kaiser Chiefs submit fully to Ronson's conceptual approach. On the club-ready "Good Days and Bad Days", Kaiser Chiefs allow themselves to undergo a near-total musical transformation. With the band's hooky melodies sprinkled throughout Ronson's bombastic, disco-tinged offerings, the product is an addictively catchy, driving, pop jam. 

The infusion of electronic music may be too radical a departure for the average rock band, but Wilson's lyrical cadence never feels out of place. He never misses a beat and melds completely into the overall sonic vibe, creating an explosion of finely-tuned power pop both foreign and familiar at the same time.

Instead of diluting the precision of the record, Wilson's compositional approach is only enhanced by Ronson's experimental treatment of Kaiser Chief's pop structures. On "You Want History", Ronson's contribution is most clearly felt. Late in the song when Wilson spits his lyrics over what sounds like a digitized African tribal jamboree, the band's disregard of tradtional pop protocol and creativity is most successful.

This outstanding track — the gem of the album — undoubtedly demonstrates the appeal, relevance, and importance of this record while serving as a glimpse into the future of popular music. As the advent of the electric guitar and keyboard and later the Wall of Sound changed the paths of many genres of music forever, the utilization of Ronson's (and other like-minded producers) studio and computer techniques and technologies for pop/rock musical composition will only serve to push the boundaries of all music to unimaginable places. Kaiser Chiefs, along with contemporaries like Gnarls Barkley and Beck, have given us an initial glimpse into those endlessly intriguing possibilities.

For fans who have followed Kaiser Chiefs from their first release this album will be a refreshing reminder of the band's continued relevance in the musical landscape and their willingness to push the boundaries of their sound. Off With Their Heads combines the best elements from Kaiser Chiefs' previous formidable offerings and creates something that is interesting, fun, and unique without abandoning the core principles that made the group an instant sensation in England and with many fans in the States. For those with little or no exposure to this outstanding group of musicians, Off With Their Heads is a perfect introduction to a band whose widespread recognition is long overdue.

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