It is said that there will always be an England. In the grand geological sense, that's as true as it gets. Britain is situated on the far trailing edge of the Eurasian Plate as it slowly crashes into the Pacific Place, meaning that barring calamity, asteroid collision, or devastating attack by giant space robots, Britain is the closest thing the world has to a permanent feature. As long as there is a world and humans to live on it, there will always be an England, full of old gaffers in tweed caps, shaven-headed football hooligans and their pasty girlfriends, Sikh cabdrivers, old sheep villages full of amusingly skewed Tudor homes, cul-de-sacs full of quiet little old ladies with razor tongues, milky tea, Bovril, and people leaping behind the couch at the first sight of Daleks.
And if the English and the cockroaches do ever manage to prevail as the only remaining multicellular species to walk the blasted and parched face of the Earth, I guaran-damn-tee you they will still hail every tousled and precious power-pop band to come down the pike as the saviors of all humanity.
The latest in this long and occasionally distinguished line of rakish English popsters are the Kooks. And like their forebears the Beatles, the Who, the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Badfinger, the Small Faces, the Monkees (yes, the Monkees), Suede, XTC, Blur, Oasis, Pulp, Supergrass, all the way up to this year's heavily promoted Arctic Monkeys, they make raffish and occasionally gorgeous pop music with a distinctly British form and flavor that crosses echoes of the Victorian music hall with crunchy rock, symphonic flourishes, and a typically boozy and distracted demeanor.
The Kooks are young. The Kooks need shaves and probably a bath. The Kooks have floppy hair that hides their eyes and surely moistens panties from Norwich to Newcastle. The Kooks slouch endearingly in promo shots, grinning diffidently or striking halfhearted rawk poses that they are clearly a generation too young to take seriously. The Kooks could have been put together in a laboratory or – better yet – a focus group.
The Kooks have sold out four tours on their own in the UK. The Kooks have opened for the Stones. The Kooks have charted five singles and sold over a million copies of their debut album, Inside In/Inside Out in the UK, an area that is home to only 60 million. The Kooks have been hailed, as were Blur, Oasis, Supergrass and The Arctic Monkeys, as champions by MOJO and the NME.
So the Kooks are a thrilling story. But are they any good?
Sure, I guess. Why not?
Inside In/Inside Out begins with a bit of Ray Davies-ish rococo songwriting called "Seaside" that lines up the hooks one after the other, bang-bang-bang, as lead singer Luke Pritchard croons about vacations at the shore. For thirteen more songs (only five of which last more than three minutes), the Kooks deliver winsome pop that at times recalls every one of the bands mentioned above, plus a few others. The songwriting is definitely competent, the playing is good, and production flourishes like the reggae touches on "Time Awaits" keep things from smearing together into an undifferentiated mass of goo.
I listened to Inside In/Inside Out cold, without reading any of the band's press releases, without looking up any of the fevered praise they've garnered from the UK press, and without even bothering to find out which songs were the singles. Over the years, I have fallen madly in love with plenty of bands, crushed on them like crazy for a week or so, and then suddenly realized that everything they had was in one pretty good song and a bunch of repetitive fluff. Since then, I've learned to play albums by wannabe popsters until I'm good and sick of them, because only then do you figure out what's what.
After all this, I am happy to report that Inside Out/Inside In contains exactly no songs that verifiably suck, and at least seven songs that could be mistaken for lead singles. On the other hand, none of those seven possible singles are particularly distinguished or memorable – the minute the album ends I find I can't recall any hook or melody – and the same diffidence that makes the band so very cute in promo shots robs the music of any enduring qualities.
Their biggest singles, like "Eddie's Gun" compare favorably to golden-age-of-powerpop British hits like "Starry Eyes" by the Records or "School Days" by the Starjets. However, Oasis, the Arctic Monkeys, and especially Supergrass have already done this revival to death. At this point, it's not enough to write winsome pop songs you can sing along to; I now find myself asking Britain's musicians, en masse, "but what have you done for me lately?" In the USA, it's easy to see the Kooks becoming a college hit and selling a bunch of records, which is good for them and their label. But it's also easy to see the album ending up in a couple months on the shelf next to Bush's Sixteen Stone and (just to prove it's not Britain's problem alone) the Strokes' first album as a mildly interesting reminder of that one band, who had that song, that I could probably sing if I could just remember how it starts.
The Kooks are trashy and huggable. The Kooks write incredibly cute pop songs with competence and just enough attitude to make them seem more dangerous than the boys from 'N Sync. But unfortunately, the Kooks are a little boring, too. Inside In/Inside Out is just fine, but 'just fine' doesn't get me hard anymore. If your personal kink is for young and attractive British sensations, or if you're new to the cycle of hype-and-bust, then by all means check this out; it's as okay a place to start familiarizing yourself with Britpop in the '00s as any. But if not, you're probably better off picking up The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and the Supergrass album of your choice.